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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Seven)

"Here you go, Mrs. Corelli." Tess lifted a plastic cat carrier over the reception counter, passing the growling, hissing white Persian back to its owner. "Angel's not too happy right now, but he should be feeling back up to snuff in a couple of days. I wouldn't let him outside until the sutures have dissolved, though. Not that he's going to be feeling like much of a Romeo anymore."

The elderly woman clucked her tongue. "For months now, all up and down my street, what do I see? Little Angels running around. I tell you, I had no idea! And my poor smoochie-puss, coming home every night looking like a prizefighter, that pretty face of his torn up and bloody."

"Well, he won't have a lot of interest in fighting anymore. Or in his other apparent pastime. You've done the right thing by having him neutered, Mrs. Corelli."

"My husband would like to know if you'd do the same for our granddaughter's current boyfriend. Ay, but that boy is a wild one. Nothing but trouble and he's only fifteen!"

Tess laughed. "My practice is limited to animals, I'm afraid."

"More's the pity. Now, what do I owe you, dear?"

Tess watched the elderly woman dig out her checkbook with chapped, arthritic hands. Even though she was well past retirement age, Mrs. Corelli cleaned houses five days a week, Tess knew. It was hard work, and the wages were meager, but since her husband's disability pay had dried up a few years ago, Mrs. Corelli had become the sole provider for her household. Whenever Tess felt tempted to sulk because she was strapped and struggling, she thought about this woman and how she soldiered on with dignity and grace.

"We're actually running a special on services right now, Mrs. Corelli. So your grand total for today is twenty dollars."

"Are you sure, dear?" At Tess's insistent nod, the woman paid the clinic fee, then tucked the pet carrier under her arm and headed for the exit. "Thank you, Doctor Tess."

"You're very welcome."

As the door closed behind her client, Tess glanced to the clock on the waiting-room wall. Just after four. The day had seemed to drag on endlessly, no doubt due to the strange night she'd had. She had considered canceling her appointments and staying home, but she'd marshaled herself and worked the full day. One more appointment, and then she could get out of here.

Although why she was so eager to race home to her empty apartment, she had no idea. She felt edgy and exhausted at the same time, her entire system buzzing with an odd kind of disquiet.

"You have a message from Ben," Nora announced as she came out of one of the dog-grooming rooms. "It's on a sticky note by the phone. Something about a fancy art thing tomorrow night? He said you mentioned you'd go with him a few weeks ago, but he wanted to make sure you hadn't forgotten."

"Oh, shit. The MFA dinner exhibit is tomorrow night?"

Nora gave her a wry look. "Guess you forgot. Well, it sounds like fun anyway. Oh, and your four-twenty vaccination called to cancel. One of the girls called in sick at the diner, so now she's working a double shift. She wanted to reschedule for next week."

Tess gathered her long hair off her neck and rubbed the tight muscles at her nape. "That's fine. Will you call her back and rebook the appointment for me?"

"Already did. You feeling okay?"

"Yeah. It was a long night, that's all."

"So I heard. Ben told me what happened. Fell asleep at your desk again, eh?" Nora laughed, shaking her head. "And Ben getting worried, calling the cops to look in on you? I'm glad he didn't get into hot water with them about that stray cat he picked up."

"Me too." Ben had promised when he dropped her off at home that he'd turn right around and pick up Shiva from the clinic so he could take the animal back to its owners, like the police had instructed him to do. He wouldn't promise that another rescue attempt was out of the question, however. For what wasn't the first time, Tess wondered if his tenacious zeal, as well-intentioned as it was, might one day be his downfall.

"You know," she said to her assistant, "I still don't understand how I could have accidentally speed-dialed his number in my sleep… "

"Huh. Maybe subconsciously you wanted to call him. Hey, maybe I should try that one night. Think he 'd ride out to my rescue too?" At Tess's eye roll, Nora held up her hands in surrender. "I'm just saying! He seems like a really great guy. Good-looking, smart, charming–and let's not forget totally into you. I don't know why you won't give him a fighting chance."

Tess had given him a chance. More than one, in fact. And even though the problems she'd had with him seemed to be a thing of the past–he'd vowed time and again that they were–she was wary of becoming involved again beyond anything but friendship. Actually, she was beginning to think she might not be cut out for the whole relationship thing with anyone.

"Ben is a nice guy," she said finally, picking up his message and stuffing it into the pocket of her khakis under her long white lab coat. "But not everyone is all that they seem."

With Mrs. Corelli's check topping off the day's receipts, Tess stamped it for the bank and started preparing a deposit slip.

"You want me to run that out for you on my way home?" Nora asked.

"No. I'll do it. Since we're clear of appointments now, I think I'm going to call it a day." Tess zipped the deposit slip into the leather receipts envelope. When she looked up, Nora was gaping at her. "What? What's wrong?"

"I don't know. Who the hell are you, and what have you done with my workaholic boss?"

Tess hesitated, sudden guilt about several days' worth of filing yet to be done making her second-guess the idea of quitting early–or rather, as it actually happened to be, on time.

"I'm kidding!" Nora said, already racing around the desk to herd Tess out into the small lobby. "Go home. Relax. Do something fun, for crissake."

Tess nodded, so grateful to have someone like Nora in her corner. "Thanks. I don't know what I'd do without you."

"Just remember that at my next pay review."

It took only a couple of minutes for Tess to ditch her lab coat, grab her purse, and shut down the computer in her office. She left the clinic and walked out into the afternoon sunshine, unable to recall the last time she'd been able to quit work and stroll to the T station before dark. Enjoying the sudden freedom–her every sense seeming more alive and attuned than ever before–Tess took her sweet time, making it to the bank just before they were closing and then catching the subway home to the North End.

Her apartment was a tidy but unimpressive one-bedroom, one-bath unit, close enough to the expressway that she'd learned to consider the steady hiss of flowing, high-speed traffic to be her own brand of white noise. Not even the frequent horn blasts of impatient drivers or the squeal of vehicle brakes on the streets below her place ever really bothered her. Until now.

Tess jogged up the two flights of stairs to her apartment, her head ringing with the din of street noise. She shut herself inside and sagged against the door, dropping her purse and keys onto an antique sewing machine table that she'd bought cheap and reincarnated into a vestibule sideboard. Kicking off her brown leather loafers, Tess padded into the living room to check her voice mail and think about dinner.

She had another message here from Ben. He was going to be in the North End that evening and hoped she wouldn't mind if he dropped by to check in on her, maybe head out to one of the neighborhood's pubs for a beer together.

He sounded so hopeful, so harmlessly friendly, that Tess's finger hovered over the call-back button for a long moment. She didn't want to encourage him, and it was bad enough she'd promised to be his date for the Boston MFA's modern-art exhibit.

Which was tomorrow night, she reminded herself again, wondering if there was any way for her to wiggle out of it. She wanted to, but she wouldn't. Ben had bought the tickets specifically because he knew she loved sculpture, and the works of some of her favorite artists would be on display in limited engagement.

It was a very thoughtful gift, and backing out now would only hurt Ben. She would attend the exhibit with him, but this would be the last time they did the couple thing, even just as friends.

With that matter as good as resolved in her mind, Tess flipped on her television, found an old rerun of Friends, then wandered into her galley kitchen in search of food. She went straight for the freezer, her usual source of sustenance.

Which orange box of frozen boredom would it be tonight?

Tess absently grabbed the nearest one and tore it open. As the cellophane-covered tray clattered onto her counter, she frowned. God, she was pathetic. Was this really how she intended to spend her rare evening out of the office?

Do something fun, Nora had said.

Tess was pretty sure nothing she had on her personal schedule right now would constitute fun. Not to Nora, anyway, and not to Tess herself either.

At nearly twenty-six years old, was this what she'd let her life become?

While her bitter feelings didn't stem merely from the prospect of bland rice and rubbery chicken, Tess eyed the frozen brick of food with contempt. When was the last time she'd actually cooked a nice meal from scratch, with her own two hands?

When was the last time she'd done something good just for herself?

Too damn long, she decided, and swept the stuff off the counter and into the trash.

Senior Special Investigative Agent Sterling Chase had reported to the warriors' compound promptly at dusk. To his credit he'd lost the suit and tie, opting for a graphite-colored knit shirt, black denim jeans, and lug-soled black leather boots. He'd even covered his light hair with a dark skullcap. Dressed like he was now, Dante could almost forget the guy was civilian. Too bad no amount of camo could hide the fact that Harvard was, as of this very hour, Dante's official pain in the ass.

"If we ever need to knock over a bank, at least I know who to go to for wardrobe tips," he said to the Darkhaven agent as he pulled on a leather trench coat loaded down with all manner of hand-to-hand weapons, and the two of them made their way to one of the Order's fleet vehicles in the compound's garage.

"I won't hold my breath waiting for your call," Chase shot back drolly, taking in the prime collection of machinery. "Looks like you folks do all right without resorting to grand larceny."

The hangar-style garage held dozens of choice cars, SUVs, and cycles, some vintage, some current makes, every one of them a high-performance thing of beauty. Dante led him to a brand-new basalt-black Porsche Cayman S and clicked the remote locks open. The two of them climbed into the coupe, Chase looking around the sleek interior with clear appreciation as Dante fired up the engine, hit the code to open the hangar door, then let the sweet black beast begin its stealth prowl out into the night.

"The Order lives very well," Chase remarked from next to Dante in the Porsche's dimly lit cockpit. He exhaled an amused chuckle. "You know, a lot of the Darkhaven population believes that you are crude mercenaries, still living like lawless animals in underground caves."

"That so," Dante murmured, glaring out at the twilit stretch of road ahead of him. With his right hand, he flipped open the center console and pulled out a leather satchel containing a small cache of weapons. He dropped the lot of them–sheathed knives, a length of thick chain, and a holstered semiautomatic pistol–into the agent's lap. "Suit up, Harvard. I assume you can figure out which end of that tricked-out Beretta 92FS is the one you're gonna need to point at the bad guys. You know, seeing how you're from the rarefied halls of the Darkhavens and all."

Chase shook his head, muttered an expletive. "Look, that wasn't what I meant–"

"I don't give a shit what you meant," Dante replied, taking a hard left around a city warehouse and peeling down an empty back street. "I don't give a shit what you think about me or my brethren. Let's get that straight right up front, capisce? You're riding along only because Lucan says you're riding along. The best thing you can do through all of this is sit tight, shut up, and stay the hell out of my way."

Anger spiked in the agent's eyes, the heat of it rolling off him in waves. Although Dante could tell Chase was not accustomed to taking orders–especially from someone he might consider a few steps beneath him in the social order of things–the Darkhaven male kept his irritation to himself. He rigged up in the hardware Dante had given him, checking the safety on the pistol and then shrugging into the leather chest holster.

Dante drove into Boston's North End, following a tip Gideon had gotten about a possible rave to take place in one of the area's old buildings. At seven-thirty in the evening, they still had about five hours to kill before any activity around the location would prove out the tip one way or the other. But Dante had never been one to abide that kind of patience. He didn't do sit-and-wait, being more of the mind that death had a harder time catching up to a moving target.

He cut the lights and parked the Porsche down the street from the building they'd be staking out. A breeze kicked up, sending a smatter of leaves and city dust skating across the hood of the vehicle. When it had passed, Dante slid the window down and let the coolness come inside. He took a deep breath, dragging in a lungful of the crisp, late-autumn air.

Something spicy-sweet tickled his nostrils, sending every cell in his body into instant alert. The scent was distant and elusive, nothing manufactured by man, Breed, or any of their collective sciences. It was dusky warm, like cinnamon and vanilla, although to call it such only captured the smallest fraction of its mystique. The scent was something exquisite and singular.

Dante knew it at once. It belonged to the female he'd fed from–the Breedmate he'd so carelessly claimed as his less than twenty-four hours ago.

Tess.

Dante opened the car door and got out.

"What are we doing?"

"You're staying here," he instructed Chase, drawn inexorably toward her, his feet already moving on the pavement.

"What is it?" The agent drew his gun and started to get out of the Porsche like he meant to tail Dante on foot. "Tell me what's happening, damn it. Do you see something out there?"

"Stay in the fucking car, Harvard. And keep your eyes and ears on that building. I've got to check something out."

Dante didn't think anything was going to go down at their posted location in the next few minutes, but if it did, at that moment he didn't really care. All he knew was the scent of that perfume on the night wind and the realization that the female was near.

His female, came the dark reminder from somewhere inside him.

Dante tracked her like a predator. Like all of the Breed, he was gifted with heightened senses, super speed, and animal agility. When they wanted, vampires could move among humans undetected, nothing more than a cool breeze on the back of their necks as they passed them by. Dante used that preternatural skill now, navigating the clogged streets and back alleys, his senses trained on his quarry.

He rounded a corner onto the busy main street, and there she was, across the width of the pavement, on the other side.

Dante went still where he stood, watching as Tess shopped in a lighted open-air market, carefully selecting fresh greens and vegetables. She dropped a yellow squash into her canvas shopping bag, then perused a bin of fruit, stopping to lift a pale cantaloupe to her nose and test its ripeness.

Thinking back on the moment he first saw her in her clinic, even through the haze of his injuries, Dante had recognized that she was beautiful. But tonight, under the strand of small white lights illuminating the produce bins, she looked radiant. Her cheeks were flushed pink, her blue-green eyes sparkling as she smiled over at the old proprietess and complimented her on the quality of the stand's offerings.

Dante moved up his side of the street, keeping to the shadows, unable to take his eyes off her. This close, the scent of her was inebriating and lush. He breathed in through his mouth, letting the spicy sweetness of her sift through his teeth, relishing the way it played across his tongue.

God, but he wanted to taste her again.

He wanted to drink of her.

He wanted to take her. Before he knew what he was doing, Dante stepped down off the curb and into the street. He could have been at her side in half a second, but something strange caught his eye.

He wasn't the only male watching Tess with evident interest.

A human stood in the shelter of a building entrance just a few doors down, peering around the casement at the market in an attempt to not be seen as he observed Tess finishing up her shopping. He didn't fit the stalker mold, with his tall, lean frame and college-boy good looks. Then again, neither had Ted Bundy.

Tess paid for her groceries and wished the old woman a good night. The instant she started to step away from the lighted awnings of the produce stand, the human carefully came out of his hiding place.

Dante seethed at the idea that Tess might meet with harm. He crossed the street in a blink, coming up on the human from behind and stalking within a few yards, ready to tear the man's arms off if he so much as breathed on her.

"Hey, Doc," the man called out, familiarity in his voice. "What's up?"

Tess spun around, gave him a surprised little smile. "Ben, hi! What are you doing here?"

She knew him. Dante pulled back at once, easing off into the flow of pedestrians milling about the shops and restaurants.

"Didn't you get my message at your place? I had business up here, and I thought maybe we could have dinner or something."

Dante watched as the human went up and hugged her, then leaned down to give her a fond kiss on the cheek. The man's adoration was obvious. More than adoration; Dante detected the sharp tang of possessiveness radiating off the human male.

"Are we still on for the dinner exhibit at the museum tomorrow night?" the man asked her.

"Yeah, sure." Tess nodded, surrendering her tote when he reached to take the burden from her. "So, what should I wear to this thing, anyway?"

"Whatever you want. I know you'll be gorgeous, Doc."

Of course. Dante understood it now. This was the boyfriend Tess had called at the clinic last night. The one she had turned to out of terror for what Dante had done to her.

Jealousy curdled in his gut–jealousy he had no true right to feel.

But his blood said different. His veins were alive and burning. The part of him that was not human at all urged him to plow through the crowd and tell the female that she was his, and his alone. Whether she knew it or not. Whether or not either of them willed it.

But a saner part of him lashed a collar around that beast and dragged it back.

Forced it to heel.

He didn't want a Breedmate. Never had, never would.

Dante watched Tess and her boyfriend stroll off ahead of him, their casual chatter all but lost amid other conversations and the general buzz of street noise swirling all around him. He hung back for a minute, blood pounding in his temples as well as other, lower regions of his anatomy.

Turning around, he loped off into the shadows, back to the building where he'd left Harvard on watch. He hoped like hell Gideon's tip about Rogue activity there was going to prove solid–the sooner, the better–because right about now he was itching for a good, bloody fight.

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