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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Seventeen)

In his private lab across town, Ben Sullivan had decided to make some adjustments to his Crimson formula. From the beginning he'd never stored the final recipe in the lab, figuring it to be a prudent measure of job security if he carried it with him instead of leaving it behind for his patron's cronies–or anyone else–to find. He'd been paranoid about getting cut out of his lucrative little venture; after the phone call he'd made to his benefactor earlier tonight, he was feeling like his paranoia might have been more of a spot-on hunch.

He had relayed everything that happened the other night, right down to the near miss with the guys who had chased him out of the club and the incredible notion that Crimson had had some kind of dangerous–vampiric, he'd been inclined to call it–effect on one of Ben's recent best customers.

The news had been accepted with his patron's usual nonreactionary calm. Ben had been advised to pulge none of the details to anyone, and a meeting had been set up for him with his employer for the following evening at nightfall. After all the months of secrecy and anonymity, he was finally getting a face-to-face with the guy.

With a little less than fifteen hours before that rendezvous was to occur, Ben thought it wise to cover his bases as best he could, in the event he might need some leverage when he went to meet with the boss. He didn't know precisely who he was dealing with, after all, and he wasn't foolish enough to discount the fact that it might be someone with some pretty serious underworld connections. Wouldn't be the first time a kid from Southie thought he could play ball with real thugs and ended up a floater in the Mystic.

Downloading both formulas–the original and the new, altered one that he considered his own job security–Ben popped the flash drive from his computer. He erased all traces of the files from his hard drive, then headed out of the lab. He took side roads back into the city, just in case he was being followed, and ended up in the North End, not too far from Tess's apartment.

She would be surprised to know how often he cruised past her place, just to see if she was there. She' d be more than surprised, he admitted to himself. She'd be a little skeeved out if she had any idea how obsessed he truly was with her. He hated that he couldn't let go of her, but the fact that she had always insisted on holding him at arm's length, particularly since their breakup, only made him want her more. He kept waiting for her to come around and let him back in, but after the other night, when he'd felt her cringe as he kissed her, some of that hope had slipped away.

Ben wheeled his van around a corner and headed up Tess's street. Maybe this would be the last time he drove by her place. The last time he'd humiliate himself like some pathetic Peeping Tom.

Yeah, he thought, putting his foot on the brake for a red light, maybe it was time to cut loose, move on. Get a fucking life.

As his van idled, Ben watched a sleek black Porsche roll up to the traffic light from a side road and hang a right in front of him, cruising down the nearly empty street toward Tess's apartment building. His stomach squeezed as he got a look at the driver. It was the guy from the club–not the one who ran after him, but the other dude, the big one with the dark hair and the lethal vibe about him.

And damn if he didn't recognize the female passenger sitting next to the guy.

Tess.

Jesus Christ. What was she doing with him? Had he been questioning her about Ben's activities or something, maybe checking up with his friends and acquaintances?

Panic swam like acid up the back of his throat, but then Ben realized that at almost three in the morning, it was a little goddamn late for a police or DEA interview. No, whatever the guy was selling Tess, it wasn't on any sort of official basis.

Ben tapped his steering wheel impatiently as the traffic light kept blaring red in front of him. Not that he was afraid of losing the Porsche. He knew where it was heading. But he wanted to see for himself. Needed to see for himself that it really was Tess.

Finally the light changed, and Ben gunned the gas. The van lurched up the street just as the car rolled to a stop outside Tess's building. Ben pulled over to the curb a few yards back and cut his lights. He waited, watching in slow simmering fury as the guy leaned over from the driver's side and pulled Tess into a long kiss.

Son of a bitch.

The embrace lasted for a long time. Too damn long, Ben thought, seething now. He threw the van into drive and turned the wheel into the street. He drove by the car at a leisurely pace, refusing to look as he passed, and then slowly continued on his way. Dante navigated his way back to the compound in a state of distraction, so much so that he'd actually taken a wrong turn coming out of the North End and had to backtrack a few blocks just to resume course. His head was filled with the scent of Tess, the taste of her. She lingered on his skin and on his tongue, and all it took was the remembered feel of her gorgeous body clinging to him, sheathing him, to give him a massive hard-on.

Damn it.

What he'd done tonight with Tess was unplanned and straight-up stupid. Not that he could muster a lot of remorse for the way he'd spent the last few hours. He'd never been so on fire with a woman, and it wasn't as if he was lacking for comparisons. He wanted to blame the fact that Tess was a Breedmate and that her blood was alive inside him, but the truth was slightly worse than that.

The woman simply did something to him that he couldn't explain, let alone deny. And after she had eased him out of the tailspin of his death vision, all he wanted–all he needed–was to lose himself even deeper in whatever spell it was that she was casting. Except having Tess naked beneath him only cranked him up tighter. Now that he'd had her, he just wanted more.

At the least, the visit to her clinic had netted some good news.

As Dante wheeled onto the compound's property, he pulled a crumpled sticky note out of his coat pocket and smacked it down onto the smooth surface of the dashboard. In the dim glow of the gauge lights, he read the handwritten message of a couple days ago, which he'd retrieved from Tess's appointment book on her desk.

Ben called–museum dinner tomorrow night, 7 pm. Don't forget!

Ben. The name rolled through Dante's mind like battery acid. Ben, the guy Tess had been with at the fancy art reception. The human scum who was dealing Crimson, probably at the direction of the Rogues.

There was a call-back number on the message, a Southie exchange. With that bit of information in hand, Dante was betting that it would take all of two seconds to locate the human via Internet or utility records.

Dante gunned the Porsche up the gated drive toward the Order's mansion, then rolled into the large, secured fleet garage. He cut the lights and engine, grabbed the piece of paper off the dash, then pulled one of his malebranche blades out of the center console beside him.

The bowed length of metal felt cold and unforgiving in his hand–just like it was going to feel against good old Ben's naked throat. He could hardly wait for the sun to set again so he could go and make a formal introduction.

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