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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Thirty-one)

Tess came awake gently, her face breaking through the surface of a warm, dark wave that floated her body toward a welcoming shore. She took a breath and felt cool, cleansing air rush into her lungs. Her eyes blinked open, once, twice, the lids feeling heavy as though she'd been asleep for days.

"Hello, angel," said a deep, familiar voice very near her face.

Tess lifted her gaze until she saw him–Dante, looking down on her, his eyes sober but smiling. He stroked her forehead, smoothing damp strands of hair out of her face.

"How do you feel?"

"Okay." She felt better than okay, her body resting on a soft mattress, cocooned in black silk sheets and the strong shelter of Dante's arms. "Where are we?"

"Someplace safe. This is where I live, Tess. Nothing can harm you here."

She registered his assurances with a pang of confusion, something shadowy and cold hovering at the edges of her consciousness. Fear. She didn't feel it now, not for him, but the feeling lingered like a mist clinging to her skin, chilling her.

She had been afraid a short while ago–deathly afraid.

Tess reached a hand up to her neck. Her fingers made contact there with a patch of inflamed, tender skin. Like a sudden flash of lightning, a memory ripped through her mind: a hideous face, with eyes as bright as lit coals, a mouth opened wide in a terrifying hiss, baring huge sharp teeth.

"I was attacked," she murmured, the words forming even before the memory took full root. "They came up to me on the street and they… attacked me. Two of them dragged me off the street and they–"

"I know," Dante said, carefully removing her hand from her neck. "But you're all right, Tess. It's over, and you don't have to be afraid now." In a blur of recollection, the night's events played in fast-forward through her mind. She relived it all, from her walk past Ben's apartment and the realization that someone other than him was inside the place, to the shocking sight of seeing the large men–if they even were men at all–leaping down from the balcony to the street below and chasing after her. She saw their terrible faces, felt the bruising strength of the hands that seized her and pulled her into the dark where the real brutality was to begin.

She could still feel the terror of that moment, when one man held her arms and the other pinned her down with the weight of his huge muscular body. She'd thought she would be raped, probably beaten as well, but her attackers' intent was only slightly less horrific.

They had bitten her.

The two savage monsters held her down like felled prey on the floor of a dark, dilapidated shed. Then they bit her at the neck and wrist and began to drink her blood.

She had been certain she was going to die there, but then something miraculous happened. Dante happened. He had killed them both, a fact Tess had not so much seen as felt. Lying on the rough plywood floor of the shed, the smell of her own blood choking her senses, she had felt Dante's presence. She had felt his rage fill the small space like a tempest of black heat.

"You… you were there too, Dante." Tess sat up, her body seeming miraculously strong, no lingering aches from her ordeal. Now that her mind was clearing, she felt energized and refreshed, like she had just awoken from a deep, rejuvenating sleep. "You found me there. You saved me, Dante."

His smile seemed haunted, as if he wasn't sure he agreed and didn't feel comfortable with her gratitude. But he wrapped his arms around her and pressed a tender kiss to her lips. "You're alive, and that's all that matters."

Tess held him close, feeling almost a part of him in some strange way. His heartbeat echoed in the cadence of her own, his body's warmth seeming to seep through her skin and bones to warm her from within. She felt connected to him now in a very visceral way. The sensation was extraordinary, so powerful it took her aback.

"Now that you're awake," Dante murmured against her ear, "there's someone waiting in the other room who'd like to see you."

Before she could respond, Dante got off the big bed and walked toward the adjacent living room. From behind him, Tess couldn't help admiring the masculine prowl of his body, the sexy network of multicolored tattoos over his back and shoulders shifting gracefully with every rolling stride. He disappeared into the other room, and Tess heard a soft animal whine that she recognized at once.

"Harvard!" she exclaimed as Dante came back into the bedroom, carrying the squirming, adorable little terrier in his arms. "You saved him too?"

Dante shook his head. "I saw him running loose before I found you and brought you here. Once I knew you were safe, I sent someone back out to get him."

He set the dog down on the bed, and Tess was immediately tackled by the perky furball. Harvard licked her hands and face as she hoisted him up for a hug, overjoyed to see him after thinking she'd lost him on the street outside Ben's apartment.

"Thank you," she said, smiling through a sudden mist of tears as the happy reunion continued. "I have to confess, I think I'm totally in love with this little beast." "Lucky dog," Dante drawled. He sat down on the edge of the bed, watching as Tess's chin got a thorough, enthusiastic washing. His expression was too carefully schooled, too grave when her eyes met his. "There are… things we need to talk about, Tess. I had hoped you might never really be part of it, but I keep dragging you further in. After tonight, you need to understand what happened, and why."

Nodding in silence, she let go of Harvard and looked at Dante's bleak gaze. Part of her already knew where the conversation was going–uncharted territory, for sure, but after what she'd seen tonight, Tess knew that things she had long taken for granted as normal and real were somehow thrown off kilter.

"What were they, Dante? Those men who attacked me–they weren't normal men. Were they?"

His head shook vaguely. "No, they weren't men. They were dangerous creatures, blood addicts. We call them Rogues."

"Blood addicts," she said, her stomach lurching at the very idea. She looked down at her wrist, where a bite mark glowed red, but healing, on her skin. "My God. That's what they were doing, drinking my blood? I don't believe this. There's only one name for that kind of psychotic behavior, and it's vampire."

Dante's piercing, unwavering stare wasn't even close to a refutation.

"Vampires don't exist," she told him firmly. "This is reality we're talking about, after all. They can't really exist."

"They do, Tess. Not the way you might have been brought up to believe. Not as undead, soulless demons, but as a separate, hybrid species. The ones who attacked you tonight are the worst kind. They have no conscience, no capacity for logic or control. They kill indiscriminately and will continue to do so if they aren't brought under control soon. That's what I and the others in this compound are here for–to see to it that the Rogues are wiped out of existence before they become a pestilence unlike anything modern humankind has ever seen."

"Oh, come on!" Tess scoffed, wanting to disbelieve but finding it hard to reject Dante's outrageous claim when he had never looked or sounded more sincere. Or more deadly rational. "Are you telling me that you're some kind of vampire slayer?"

"I'm a warrior. This is war, Tess. Things have only gotten worse now that the Rogues have Crimson on their side."

"Crimson? What's that?"

"The drug Ben Sullivan has been peddling around town the past few months. It increases the desire for blood, reduces inhibition. It creates these killers."

"What about Ben? Does he know this? Is that why you went to his apartment the other night?"

Dante nodded. "He says he was hired to make the drug by an anonymous corporation this past summer. We suspect that corporation was likely a front for the Rogues."

"Where is Ben now?"

"I don't know, but I intend to find out."

A coldness edged Dante's voice as he said it, and Tess couldn't help feeling a note of worry for Ben. " The men who–the Rogues–who attacked me had been searching his apartment." "Yes. They might have been looking for him, but we're not sure."

"I think I may know something about what they wanted."

Dante fixed her with a frown. "How so?"

"Where's my jacket?" Tess glanced around the bedroom but didn't see any of her clothes. She was wearing just a bra and panties under the sheets that draped her. "I found something at the clinic the other day. A computer flash drive. Ben hid it in one of my exam rooms."

"What was on it?"

"I don't know. I haven't tried to open it yet. It's in my jacket pocket–"

"Shit." Dante leaped to his feet. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Will you be all right here alone?"

Tess nodded, still trying to come to grips with everything that was happening, all the incredible, disturbing things she was learning about the world she thought she knew. "Dante?"

"Yeah?"

"Thank you… for saving my life."

Something dark flashed in his whiskey-colored eyes, softening his harshly handsome features. He came back to her on the bed and tunneled his fingers through the hair at her nape, tipping her face up to his. His kiss was sweet, almost reverent. "Sit tight, angel. I'll be right back."

Elise put her hand against the smooth wall of the corridor and tried to catch her breath. Her other hand was pressed to her stomach, her fingers splayed across the wide red sash of her widow's garb. A heaving roll of nausea weakened her legs, and for a moment she thought she might throw up where she stood. Wherever that might be.

She had fled the compound's tech lab in a state of complete revulsion, appalled by what she had been shown. Now, after running blindly down one length of hallway, then another, she really had no idea where she'd ended up. She only knew that she needed to get away.

She couldn't run far enough away from what she had just seen.

Sterling had warned her that the Order's satellite surveillance images of Camden were graphic, disturbing. Elise had been prepared, she'd thought, but seeing her son and several other Rogues engaged in the wholesale slaughter of a human being had been beyond even her worst imaginings. It was a nightmare that she knew would haunt her for the rest of her living days.

Her spine leaning against the corridor wall, Elise let herself sink slowly to the floor. She couldn't hold back the tears or the ragged sobs that grated in her throat. Guilt was at the root of her anguish, the regret that she hadn't been more careful with Camden. That she had taken for granted that he was too good at heart, too strong, for something so heinous to befall him.

Her son could not be the Bloodlusting monster she saw on that computer screen. He had to be in there somewhere, still retrievable. Still salvagable. Still Camden, her golden, cherished child.

"You all right?" Startled by the deep male voice, Elise flinched, her teary gaze flicking upward. Gem-green eyes stared back at her from within a reckless fall of tawny hair. It was one of the two warriors who'd come to the Darkhaven for Sterling earlier that evening–the coldly imposing one who had caught Elise and held her back when she tried to rush to Sterling's defense.

"Are you hurt?" he asked when she could only look up at him from her humiliating collapse on the corridor floor.

He strode toward her, his expression flat, unreadable. He was half undressed, wearing loose jeans that sagged down indecently on his lean hips and a white shirt that was completely unbuttoned, baring his muscular chest and torso. An astonishing display of dermaglyphs covered him from groin to shoulder, the density and intricacy of the markings leaving no doubt whatsoever that this warrior was first-generation Breed. Which meant he was among the most aggressive and powerful of the vampire race. Gen Ones were few in number; Elise, for her many decades of living in the Darkhavens, had never even seen one before.

"I'm Tegan," he said, and held out his hand to help her up.

The contact seemed too forward to her, even though she could hardly pretend that this male's huge hands hadn't been clamped down on her shoulders and her waist just a few hours before. She'd felt the lingering heat of his touch for a long time after he'd let her go, the outline of his strong fingers seeming burned into her flesh.

She got to her feet on her own power and brushed awkwardly at her wet cheeks. "I am Elise," she said, giving him a polite bow of her head. "I am Sterling's sister by marriage."

"Are you recently widowed?" he asked, his head cocking to the side as that penetrating gaze of his drank in every inch of her.

Elise fidgeted with the long scarlet sash at her waist. "I lost my mate five years ago."

"You still mourn."

"I still love him."

"I'm sorry," he said, his tone level, his face placid. "And I'm sorry about your son too."

Elise looked down, not ready to hear sympathy for Camden when she was still clinging to hope that he might return to her.

"It's not your fault. You didn't drive him to this, and you couldn't have stopped him."

"What?" she murmured, astonished that Tegan could know anything about her guilt, her secret shame. A few Gen Ones were gifted in mind reading, but she hadn't felt him probing her thoughts, and only the weakest humans were penetrable without some notice of psychic invasion. "How could you possibly–"

The answer came to her at once, the explanation for the strange buzzing of her senses when he'd touched her earlier that night, the lingering heat his fingers had left on her skin. He had pined her emotions in that instant. He had stripped her bare without her will.

"I'm sorry," he said. "It's not something I can control."

Elise blinked away her discomfiture. She knew what it was like to be cursed with such an ability. Her own psychic skill had made her a prisoner to the Darkhavens, unable to bear the bombardment of negative human thoughts that assailed her whenever she was among their kind.

But sharing a similar affliction with this warrior didn't make her any more comfortable in his presence. And worry over Camden–the raw misery she felt when she thought about what he was doing out there, swept up in the violence of the Rogues–made her anxious to be alone.

"I should go," she said, more to herself than to Tegan. "I need to… I have to get out of here. I can't be here right now."

"Do you want to go home?"

She shrugged, then shook her head, uncertain what she needed. "Anywhere," she whispered. "I just need to go."

Closer now, moving without even the slightest stir of the air around him, Tegan said, "I'll take you."

"Oh, no, I didn't mean–"

She shot a glance back down the corridor, in the direction she'd come from, thinking that she probably should try to find Sterling. A bigger part of her was thinking that she wasn't at all sure she should be in this warrior's company now, let alone considering going off with him somewhere unescorted.

"You afraid I'm going to bite you, Elise?" he asked, his lazy, sensual mouth quirking at one corner, the first indication she'd seen in him that he actually might feel any emotion at all.

"It's late," she pointed out, casting about for a polite excuse to deny him. "It must be getting close to dawn. I wouldn't ask you to risk exposure–"

"So I'll drive fast." Now he smiled, a full-on grin that said he knew full well she was trying to dodge him and he wasn't about to permit it. "Come on. Let's get the hell out of here for a while."

God help her, but when he held his hand out to her, Elise hesitated only for a second before she took it.

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