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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Nine)

"Relax, Tess." Ben's hand came to rest at the small of her back, his head bent low near her ear. "In case you hadn't noticed, this is a cocktail reception, not a funeral."

Which was a good thing, Tess thought, glancing down at her garnet-colored dress. Although the simple, resale-shop halter was a favorite, she was the only one wearing color amid the general sea of black. She felt out of place, conspicuous. Not that she was used to fitting in among other people. She never had, not from the time she was a little girl. She was always… different. Always apart from the rest of the world in ways she didn't fully understand and had learned it better not to explore. Instead, she tried to fit in–pretended she did–like now, standing in a crowded room of strangers. The urge to bolt from the crush of it all was strong.

Actually, more and more, Tess was feeling like she was standing at the front of a rising storm. As if unseen forces were gathering all around her, shoving her out onto a bare ledge. She thought if she looked down at her feet, she might find nothing but chasm beneath her. A steep fall with no end in sight.

She rubbed her neck, feeling a dull sort of ache in the tendons below her ear.

"You okay?" Ben asked. "You've been quiet all night."

"Have I? I'm sorry. I don't mean to be."

"Are you having a good time?"

She nodded, forcing a smile. "This is an amazing exhibit, Ben. The program says it's a private patrons' event, so how did you manage to get tickets?"

"Ah, I've got a few connections around town." He shrugged, then downed the last of his champagne. " Someone owed me a favor. And it's not what you're thinking," he said, his tone chiding as he took her empty soda glass from her hand. "I know the bartender, and he knows one of the girls who works in events here at the museum. Knowing how much you enjoy sculpture, a few months ago I put a bug in his ear about scoring me a couple of extra tickets for this reception."

"And the favor?" Tess prompted, suspicious. She knew that Ben often mingled with some questionable people. "What did you have to do for this guy?"

"His car was in the shop and I loaned him my van one night for a wedding he had to work. That's it, all on the up and up. Nothing shady." Ben gave her one of his melting grins. "Hey, I made you a promise, didn't I?"

Tess nodded vaguely.

"Speaking of the bar, how about I refresh our drinks–another mineral water with lime for the lady?"

"Yes, thank you."

As Ben wended through the crowd, Tess resumed her perusal of the art collection on special display around the grand ballroom. There were hundreds of pieces of sculpture, representing thousands of years of history, all encased in tall Plexiglas kiosks.

Tess came up behind a group of blond, bronzed, bejeweled society women who were blocking a case of Italian terra-cotta figurines and chattering about so-and-so's botched brow lift and Mrs. Somebody-or-other's recent affair with a country-club tennis pro less than half her age. Tess hovered in back of them, sincerely trying not to listen as she attempted to get a closer look at the elegant sculpture of Cornacchini's Sleeping Endymion.

She felt like an impostor, both as Ben's date tonight and among these people at the museum patrons' event. This was more his crowd than hers. Born and reared in Boston, Ben had grown up around art museums and theater, while her cultural background had been limited to county fairs and the local cinema. What she knew about art was modest at best, but her love of sculpture had always been something of an escape for her, particularly in those troubled days back home in rural Illinois. Back then, she'd been a different person, and Teresa Dawn Culver knew a few things about impostors. Her stepfather had made sure of that. From all appearances, he'd seemed a model citizen: successful, kind, moral. He was none of those things. But he was dead almost a decade now, her estranged mother recently dead as well. As for Tess, she had left that painful past nine years and half a country behind her.

If only she could leave the memories there too.

The awful knowledge of what she'd done…

Tess refocused her attention on the handsome lines of Endymion. As she studied the eighteenth-century terra-cotta sculpture, the fine hairs at the back of her neck began to tickle. A flush of heat washed over her–just the briefest skate of warmth, but enough to make her look around for the source. She found nothing. The pack of gossiping women moved on, and then it was only Tess at the display.

She peered into the glass case once more, letting the beauty of the artist's work transport her away from her private anxieties to a place of peace and comfort.

"Exquisite."

A deep voice tinged with a faint, elegant accent drew her head up with a start. There, on the other side of the clear kiosk, stood a man. Tess found herself looking into whiskey-colored eyes fringed with thick, inky-black lashes. If she thought she stuck out like a sore thumb at this ritzy event, she had nothing on this guy.

Six and a half feet of darkness stared at her with hawkish eyes and a stern, almost menacing air of confidence. He was a study in black, from the glossy waves of his hair, to the broad lines of his leather coat and body-hugging knit shirt, to his long legs, which appeared to be outfitted in black fatigues.

Despite his inappropriately casual attire, he held himself with a confidence that made him seem like he owned the place, projecting an air of power even in his stillness. People stared at him from all corners of the room, not with scorn or disapproval but with a deference–a respectful wariness–that Tess couldn't help feeling herself. She was gaping, she realized, and quickly glanced back into the case to avoid the heat of his unwavering gaze.

"It's–it's beautiful, yes," she stammered, hoping like hell she didn't look as flustered as she felt.

Her heart was racing inexplicably, and that strange tingly ache was back in the side of her neck. She touched the place below her ear where her pulse now throbbed, trying to rub it away. The sensation only got worse, like a buzzing in her blood. She felt twitchy and nervous, in need of air. When she started to move on to another case of sculpture, the man came around the display, subtly stepping into her path.

"Cornacchini is a master," he said, that silky growl rolling over the name like the purr of a big cat. "I don't know all of his works, but my parents were great patrons of the arts back home in Italy."

Italian. So that explained his gorgeous accent. Since she couldn't manage a smooth escape now, Tess nodded politely. "Have you been in the States long?"

"Yes." A smile pulled at the corner of his sensual mouth. "I've been here for a very long time. I am called Dante," he added, extending his large hand to her.

"Tess." She accepted his greeting, nearly gasping as his fingers wrapped around hers in a moment of contact that was nothing short of electric. Good Lord, the guy was gorgeous. Not model pretty but rugged and masculine, with a square-cut jaw and lean cheekbones. His full lips were enough to make any one of the collagen-plumped socialites at the reception weep with envy. In fact, his was the kind of profanely masculine face that artists had been trying to capture in clay and marble for centuries. His only visible flaw was a jag in the otherwise straight bridge of his nose.

A fighter? Tess wondered, some of her interest fading already. She had no use for violent men, even if they looked and sounded like fallen angels.

She offered him a pleasant smile and started to walk away. "Enjoy the exhibit."

"Wait. Why are you running away?" His hand came to rest on her forearm, only the slightest brush of contact, but it stilled her. "Are you afraid of me, Tess?"

"No." What a strange question for him to ask. "Should I be?"

Something flickered in his eyes, then disappeared. "No, I don't want that. I want you to stay, Tess."

He kept saying her name, and every time it rolled off his tongue, she felt some of her anxiety melt away. "Look, I'm, uh… I came here with someone," she blurted out, reaching for the easiest excuse that came to her.

"Your boyfriend?" he asked, then turned his shrewd gaze unerringly toward the crowded bar where Ben had gone. "You don't want him to come back and see us talking?"

It sounded ridiculous and she knew it. Ben had no claim over her, and even if they were still dating, she wouldn't let herself be dominated so much that she couldn't even talk with another man. That was all she was doing here with Dante, yet it felt intensely intimate. It felt illicit.

It felt dangerous, because despite everything she'd learned about protecting herself, about keeping her guard up, she was intrigued by this man, this stranger. She was attracted to him. More than attracted, she felt connected to him in some inexplicable way.

He smiled at her, then began a slow prowl around the Cornacchini display. "Sleeping Endymion," he said, reading the placard for the sculpture of the mythical shepherd boy. "What do you think he dreams about, Tess?"

"You don't know the story?" At the subtle shake of his head, Tess drifted toward him, almost unaware that she was moving. Unable to stop herself until she was standing right beside Dante, their arms brushing against each other as she looked into the Plexiglas with him. "Endymion dreams of Selene."

"The Greek moon goddess," Dante murmured next to her, his deep voice vibrating in her bones. "And are they lovers, Tess?"

Lovers.

Warmth stirred somewhere deep inside her just to hear him speak the word. He'd said it casually enough, yet Tess heard the question as if he'd meant it for her ears alone. The low, ticklish hum in the side of her neck intensified again, pulsing in time to the sudden rise of her heartbeat. She cleared her throat, feeling strange and unsettled, all her senses sharpening.

"Endymion was a handsome shepherd boy," she said finally, drawing on recollections of what she'd learned in a college mythology course. "Selene, as you said, was the goddess of the moon." "A human and an immortal," Dante remarked. She could feel his eyes on her now, that whiskey-colored gaze watching her. "Not the ideal combination, is it? Someone usually ends up dead."

Tess glanced at him. "This is one of the few times things worked out." She stared hard at the sculpture in order to avoid looking Dante's way again and confirming that he was still watching her, so close she could feel the heat of his body. She started talking again, needing to fill the space with something other than the awareness that was crackling around her. "Selene could only be with Endymion at night. She wanted to be with him forever, so she begged Zeus to grant her lover eternal life. The god agreed and put the shepherd into an endless sleep, where he waits each night for his beloved Selene to visit him."

"Happily ever after," Dante drawled, a note of cynicism in his voice. "Only in myths and fairy tales."

"You don't believe in love?"

"Do you, Tess?"

She glanced up at him, into a penetrating, probing gaze that felt as intimate as a caress. "I'd like to believe in it," she said, not sure why she was admitting this now, to him. The fact that she had said so to him confused her. Anxious suddenly, she strolled over to a neighboring case of Rodin pieces. "So, what's your interest in sculpture, Dante? Are you an artist or an enthusiast?"

"Neither."

"Oh." Dante kept pace with her, pausing beside her at the kiosk. Tess had dismissed him as out of place when she first saw him, but hearing him speak, seeing him up close, she had to admit that despite the fact that he looked like something out of a Wachowski brothers' action movie, there was an unmistakable level of sophistication about him. Beneath the leather and muscle, he had a worldly wiseness that intrigued her. Probably more than it should. "What then? Are you a patron of the museum? "

He gave a mild shake of his dark head.

"Working security for the exhibit?" she guessed.

It would certainly explain his lack of formal wear and the laser-sharp intensity that radiated around him. Maybe he was from one of those high-end insurance units that museums often hired to protect their collections while on public display.

"There was something here I wanted to see," he replied, his mesmerizing eyes unflinching on her. "That 's the only reason I came."

Something about the way he looked at her as he said it–the way he seemed to look right through her –gave her pulse a little jolt of electricity. She'd been hit on enough in the past to know when a guy was working some kind of angle, but this was different.

This man held her gaze with an intimacy that said she was already his. Not bravado or threat, but fact.

It didn't take much to imagine his large hands on her body, stroking her bare shoulders and arms. His sensual lips pressing against her mouth, his teeth gently grazing her neck.

Exquisite.

Tess stared up at him, at the slight curve of his lips, which hadn't moved despite the fact that she just heard him speak. He moved toward her regardless of the milling crowd–none of whom seemed to notice them at all–and tenderly traced the line of her cheek with his thumb. Tess could find no will to move as he leaned down and brushed his mouth along the curve of her jaw.

Heat ignited in her core, a slow burn that melted even more of her reason.

I came here tonight for you.

She couldn't have heard correctly–if for nothing else, the very fact that he hadn't said a word. Yet Dante's voice was in her head, soothing her when she should be alarmed. Making her believe, when everything reasonable told her she was experiencing the impossible.

Close your eyes, Tess.

Her eyelids fell shut and then his mouth moved over hers in a soft, mesmerizing kiss. It wasn't happening, Tess thought desperately. She wasn't really letting this man kiss her, was she? In the middle of a crowded room?

But his lips were warm on hers, his teeth roughly grazing as he sucked her lower lip between them before drawing back. Just like that, the sudden, surprising kiss was over. And Tess wanted more.

God, how she wanted.

She couldn't open her eyes for the way her blood was thrumming, every part of her hot with need and an impossible yearning. Tess weaved a little on her feet, panting and breathless, astonished at what she'd just experienced. She felt a cool breeze skim her body, raising goose bumps in its wake.

"Sorry I took so long." Ben's voice jolted her eyes open as he strode up with drinks in hand. "This place is a zoo. The line at the bar took forever."

Startled, she glanced around for Dante. But he was gone. No sign of him at all–not anywhere near her or in the circulating crowd.

Ben handed her a glass of mineral water. Tess drank it quickly, half tempted to take his champagne and down that too.

"Oh, shit," Ben said, frowning as he looked at her. "There must be a chip in that glass, Tess. You've cut your lip."

She brought her hand up to her mouth as Ben scrambled to give her a small white napkin. Her fingertips came away wet, vivid scarlet.

"Jesus, I'm sorry about that. I should have looked–"

"I'm okay, really." She didn't quite know if that was true, but none of what she was feeling was Ben's fault. And she didn't have to check the glass to know there was no rough edge that might have caught on her lip. She must have bitten it herself when she and Dante… Well, she didn't even want to think about the strange encounter she'd had with him. "You know, I'm feeling a little tired, Ben. Would you mind if we called it a night?"

He shook his head. "No, that's fine. Whatever you want. Let's go get our coats."

"Thank you."

As they headed out, Tess cast one last glance at the clear display case where Endymion slept on, waiting for darkness and his otherworldly lover to come for him.

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