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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Thirty-five)

With the knife biting into her neck to keep her silent, Ben forced Tess out of her building and into a waiting car on the street. He smelled bad, like soured blood and sweat and a hint of decay. His clothes were filthy and wrinkled, his normally golden hair unkempt, hanging lank and unwashed into his brow. As he shoved her into the backseat of the car, Tess caught a glimpse of his eyes. They were dull and flat, staring at her with a cold detachment that made her skin crawl.

And Ben wasn't alone.

Two other men waited in the car, both seated in the front, both sharing the same vacant glint in their eyes.

"Where is it, Tess?" Ben asked as he closed the door and shut them inside the dark vehicle. "I left a little something at the clinic the other day, but now it's not there. What did you do with it?"

The flash drive he'd lied about concealing. Which was currently in Dante's possession. As much as she doubted Dante after all she had learned about him, what she felt for Ben now was even stronger. She met his disturbingly lifeless gaze and shook her head.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Wrong answer, Doc."

Tess wasn't at all prepared for the fist that shot out at her and connected with the side of her head. She cried out, falling hard against the seat and cradling the pain that was exploding in her face.

"Maybe you'll think more clearly at the clinic," Ben said. At his indication, the driver punched the gas and the car sped up the street. Tess's vision swam as they made the drive from the North End to her clinic in East Boston. Ben's van was parked around back, right next to Nora's vintage Beetle.

"Oh, God," Tess murmured, heartsick to see her assistant's car. "What have you done to her, Ben? Tell me you haven't hurt Nora–"

"Come along, Doc," he said, ignoring her question as he opened the door beside him and motioned to her with the knife to get moving.

Tess climbed out as directed, followed by Ben and the two goons who accompanied him. They brought her in through the back of the clinic, through the storeroom and into the empty kennel area. Ben shoved her forward, into the clinic's lobby. The place was trashed, file cabinets tossed over and emptied onto the floor, furniture smashed, chemicals and pharmaceuticals spilled all over the floor. The destruction was total, but it wasn't until Tess saw Nora that her breath caught on a sob.

She was lying on the floor behind the reception station, her head coming up as Tess was brought near. They had tied her hands and feet with a telephone cord and gagged her mouth with a length of gauze from the medical supplies. Nora was crying, her face ashen, her eyes puffed and red from what looked to have been hours of torment. But she was alive, and that alone kept Tess from losing it completely.

"Oh, Nora," she said brokenly. "I'm so sorry. I'll get you out of this, I promise."

Beside her, Ben chuckled. "I'm glad to hear you say that, Doc. Because little Nora's fate depends solely on you now."

"What? What do you mean?"

"You're going to help us find that flash drive, or you're going to watch as I slit the bitch's throat in front of you."

Behind the gag in her mouth, Nora screamed. She started struggling wildly against her bonds, all in vain. One of Ben's big companions went over and hauled her to her feet, holding Nora in a bruising grip. He dragged her closer, until no more than a couple of feet separated the women. Nora pleaded with her eyes, sheer panic making her tremble like a leaf in her captor's hard grasp.

"Let her go, Ben. Please."

"Hand over the flash drive, and I will let her go, Tess."

Nora moaned, the sound imploring, desperate. Tess knew real terror then, a bone-deep dread that only bore further into her as she looked into her friend's eyes and realized that Ben and these other men were deadly serious. They were going to kill Nora–probably Tess as well–if she didn't give them what they wanted. And she couldn't give it to them, because she didn't have it.

"Ben, please. Let Nora go and use me instead. I'm the one who took the flash drive, not her. She's not involved in this–"

"Tell me where you put the drive, and maybe I'll let her go, how's that, Doc? Fair enough for you?"

"I don't have it," she murmured. "I took it out of the examination table where you hid it, but I don't have it anymore."

He fixed that unfeeling stare on her, a muscle ticking in his jaw. "What did you do with it?" "Let her go," Tess hedged. "Let her go, and I'll tell you whatever you want to know."

Ben's mouth lifted at the corner. He eyed the knife he held, toying with the razor edge of the blade. Then, in a flash of motion, he pivoted around and stuck Nora in the stomach with it.

"No!" Tess screamed. "Oh, God–no!"

Ben swung back to her, cool as could be. "That's just a gut wound, Doc. She can survive that if she gets help soon enough, but you'd better start talking fast."

Tess's knees buckled beneath her. Nora was bleeding badly, her eyes rolling back in her head from shock. "Goddamn you, Ben. I hate you."

"And I no longer care what you feel about me, Tess. All I care about is getting that flash drive back. So. Where the fuck is it?"

"I gave it to someone."

"Who?"

"Dante."

That caused a spark of animosity to flicker in Ben's dull gaze. "You mean that guy–the one you're screwing? Do you have any idea what you've done? Any idea what he is?"

When she didn't reply, Ben shook his head, chuckling. "Well, you've really fucked up, Tess. It's out of my hands now."

With that, his arm shot out and his blade arced back toward Nora, making good on his earlier threat. Tess wailed as her friend was dropped, lifeless, to the floor. Ben and one of his companions grabbed Tess before she could reach out for Nora–before she had even a moment's hope of saving her with her touch. They carried her away from the carnage, trapping her legs and arms as she fought them in a burst of animal desperation.

Struggling was futile. In moments, Tess found herself on the floor of one of her exam rooms, then heard the metallic click of the lock as Ben shut her inside to await her fate.

Nikolai drove like a bat out of hell, speeding the Breed's black SUV through the city at a breakneck pace. The temptation to watch the sunlit streets and buildings fly past through the dark, UV-tinted windows was tempting–a sight Dante had never seen, and one he sincerely hoped he never would need to again–but he kept his head down in the passenger side of the vehicle, his thoughts trained on Tess.

He and the others were outfitted in head-to-toe black nylon protective clothing: fatigues, gloves, ski-mask head coverings, and close-fitting wraparound shades to shield their eyes. Even so, the jog from the vehicle to the back door of Tess's clinic building was intense.

With weapons at the ready, Dante wasted no time. He led the charge, planting his booted foot in the center of the storeroom door and kicking the steel panel right off its hinges. Smoke swirled from the fires that Sullivan had begun setting inside. The roiling plumes grew thicker with the sudden influx of air from outside. They wouldn't have much time to finish this.

"What the hell is going on?" At the crack of splintering metal and raining debris from the door, a Minion came running in to see what was wrong. Niko let him know without the slightest hesitation, firing a round of metal into the guy's skull.

Now that they were inside, Dante smelled blood and death through the smoke–not the fresh kill lying at their feet and, thankfully, not Tess either. She was still alive. He sensed her fear like his own, her current state of sorrow and pain tearing into him like heated steel.

"Sweep the place and put out the fires," he ordered Niko and Chase. "Kill anyone who stands in your way."

Tess tried the tightly wound cords that bound her hands and feet together behind her on the examination table. They wouldn't budge. But she couldn't stop trying them, even when her struggles only seemed to amuse her captor.

"Ben, why are you doing this? For God's sake, why did you have to kill Nora?"

Ben clucked his tongue. "You killed her, Tess, not me. You forced my hand."

Sorrow choked her as Ben came over to where he had trussed her up on the table.

"You know, I thought killing you was going to be difficult," he whispered near her ear, his hot, stale breath assaulting her nostrils. "You've made it very easy for me."

She watched nervously as he went around to the front of the platform and bent down to her level. His fingers were rough in her hair as he lifted her face up off the slab of cold metal. His eyes were those of a dead man, a mere shell of a human being, no longer the Ben Sullivan she once knew.

"It didn't have to be like this," he told her, his tone deceptively gentle. "Just know that you brought this on yourself. Be grateful I didn't turn you over to my Master instead."

He stroked her cheek, his touch revolting. When she flinched away, he held her hair tighter, forcing her to look at him. He leaned in as if to kiss her, and Tess spat in his face, fighting back by the only means he 'd left her.

Tess braced herself for retaliation as he raised his free hand to strike her. "You fucking bit–"

He didn't get a chance to finish speaking, let alone touch her. A blast of arctic air rushed in from the open doorway, the instant before the space filled with the massive form of a man clothed in solid black and wearing opaque wraparound sunglasses. Guns and blades hung from his hips and from the thick leather holsters that crisscrossed his muscular torso.

Dante.

Tess would know him anywhere, even beneath the cover of all that black. Hope flared in her, along with surprise. She could feel him reaching out to her with his mind, assuring her that he would get her out of there. That she was safe now.

And at the same time, she could feel his rage. The icy chill of it rolled off his huge body, centering on Ben. Dante lowered his head, the focus of his gaze readable even through the dark lenses that shielded his eyes. A glow emanated from behind those black shades–ember bright, and deadly. With the flick of a glance, Ben's body was jerked up off the floor and smashed into the cabinets on the exam-room wall. He kicked and flailed, but Dante held him aloft with just the power of his will. When another black-clad warrior appeared in the doorway, Dante growled a command.

"Get her out of here, Chase. I don't want her to see this."

Dante's companion came over and cut Tess loose, then carefully lifted her into his arms and carried her out of the clinic to an SUV that idled out back.

Once Chase had removed Tess from the room, Dante let go of his mental hold on the human. The contact severed, Sullivan dropped like dead weight to the floor. He started to scramble up, trying to grab for a knife he'd left lying on the counter. Dante sent the blade flying with a sharp mental command, embedding the steel point in the opposite wall.

He stalked farther into the room, forgoing his own weapons in order to deliver Ben Sullivan's death with his hands. He wanted vengeance now, and he meant to make the bastard suffer for what he'd intended to do to Tess. For what he had done to her in the time before Dante reached her.

"Get up," he ordered the human. "It ends here."

Sullivan chuckled, coming up slowly to his feet. When Dante met his gaze, he saw the dull glint of a mind slave in the Crimson dealer's eyes. Ben Sullivan had been turned Minion. Certainly explained his recent MIA status. Killing him by any means was going to be doing him a favor.

"Where's your Master hiding out these days, Minion?"

Sullivan only glared at him.

"Did he tell you we kicked his ass last summer, that he ran off with his tail between his legs rather than face the Order mano a mano? He's a coward and a poseur, and we're gonna take him down."

"Fuck you, vampire."

"No, I don't think so," Dante said, noting the twitch of muscle in the Minion's legs, the telltale movement that told him Sullivan was about to snap. "Fuck you, you Minion piece of shit. And fuck the son of a bitch who owns you too."

A shrill bellow came out of the Minion's mouth as he launched himself across the room at Dante. Sullivan punched and hammered at him, fists flying fast, but not so fast that Dante couldn't block them. In the scuffle, Dante's chest covering tore away, exposing his skin. With a roar, he sent a blow into the Minion's face, relishing the crack of bone and the dull smack of giving flesh that sounded on impact.

Ben Sullivan went down in a sprawl. "There is only one true Master of the race," he hissed up at Dante. "Soon he will rule as king–as is his birthright!"

"Not bloody likely," Dante replied, lifting the Minion's bulk off the floor in one hand, then sending him airborne.

Sullivan slid across the polished surface of the table where he'd held Tess and crashed into the windowed wall on the other side of the room. He righted himself at once, leaping up to his feet but weaving in front of the blinds, which swung back and forth behind him. Dante instinctively shielded his eyes from the intermittent light, bringing his arm up to block the rays. "What's the matter? Too bright for you, vampire?" He grinned through bloodstained teeth. In his hand was a piece of broken drawer, which he held before him like a jagged club. "How about a little lesson from Die Hard?"

He swung his arm back and shattered the window, knocking the blinds askew and sending glass flying all around them. Sunlight poured in, searing Dante's eyes behind his shades. He roared at the sudden agony shredding his corneas, and in that brief second of inattention, Ben Sullivan rolled out from under him, trying to escape.

Temporarily blinded, his skin heating up through his protective clothing and sizzling where the light met his exposed flesh, Dante tracked the Minion with his other senses, all of them heightened as his rage transformed him. Fangs stretched long in his mouth. Pupils narrowed on the other side of his dark lenses.

Launching up into the air, he leaped across the room in one fluid motion, pouncing on Sullivan from behind. The impact took both of them to the floor. Dante gave the Minion no chance to react. He grabbed him by his chin and brow and leaned down so that his sharp fangs brushed the bastard's ear.

"Yippeekayay, muthafucker."

With a sharp twist, Dante snapped the Minion's neck in his hands.

He dropped the limp corpse to the floor, vaguely aware of the acrid smell in the air and the faint sizzle that buzzed in his ears like a swarm of flies. Pain washed over him as he stood up and turned away from the broken window. He heard the heavy pound of boots outside the room, but he could hardly force his eyes to focus on the dark shape that filled the space between the jambs.

"It's all clear out–holy shit." Niko's voice trailed off, and then the warrior was at Dante's side, ushering him out of the light-washed room at an urgent clip. "Oh, Jesus, D. How long were you exposed? "

Dante shook his head. "Not that long. Bastard knocked out the window."

"Yeah," Niko said, his voice oddly grim. "I can see that. We have to get you out of here, man. Come on."

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