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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Thirty-six)

"Holy. Hell."

The black-clad warrior in the front seat of the SUV with Tess–Chase, he'd been called–threw open the driver's-side door and leaped out, just as Dante and another man came running out of the clinic. But Dante wasn't so much running as he was stumbling, his body being held up by the warrior helping him out. His head was dropped down against his chest, uncovered, and the front of his fatigues were torn open, exposing the tawny skin of his torso, which glowed a fiery red in the bright light of the morning.

Chase opened the SUV's back door and helped the other man get Dante inside. Dante's fangs were long, the sharp points glinting white with each breath he dragged in through his open mouth. His face was contorted in pain, his pupils thin black slits in the middle of bright amber irises. He was fully transformed, the vampire Tess should fear but couldn't now.

His friends worked fast, their grim silence making Tess's blood run cold. Chase shut the back door and ran around to the driver's seat. He hopped in, threw the vehicle into gear, and they were off.

"What happened to him?" she asked anxiously, unable to see blood on Dante or any other indication of injury. "Is he wounded?"

"Exposure," said the one she didn't know, his urgent tone tinged with a Slavic accent. "Fucking Crimson dealer busted out a window. Dante had to take the bastard down in direct sunlight."

"Why?" Tess asked, watching Dante shift on the backseat, feeling his agony and the concern that emanated from both of his grave companions. "Why would he do this? Why would any of you do this?"

With small but determined movements, Dante managed to strip off one of his gloves. He reached out to her from where he lay.

"Tess… "

She took his hand in hers, watching his strong fingers engulf her own. The emotion that traveled through their connection reached deep inside her, a warmth–a knowledge–that stole her breath.

It was love, so profound, so fierce, it rendered her speechless.

"Tess," he murmured, his voice little more than air. "It was you. Not my death… yours."

"What?" She squeezed his hand, tears welling in her eyes.

"The visions… It wasn't me, but you. I couldn't–" He broke off, inhaling sharply through obvious anguish. "Had to stop it. Couldn't let you… no matter what."

Tess's tears spilled over, running down her cheeks as she held Dante's gaze. "Oh, God, Dante. You shouldn't have risked this. What if you had died in my place?"

His lip lifted slightly at the corner, baring the edge of one sharp, gleaming fang. "Worth it… seeing you here. It was worth… any risk."

Tess grasped his hand in both of hers, furious and grateful, and not a little terrified of how he looked, lying in the back of the vehicle. She held on to him and didn't let go until they had arrived at the compound. Chase parked the SUV in a cavernous hangar filled with dozens of other vehicles. They all got out, and Tess just tried to stay out of the way while Dante's companions lifted him out of the car and moved him to a bank of elevators.

Dante's condition seemed to be worsening as each minute passed. By the time they descended and the elevator doors opened, he could hardly stand up on his own. A group of three other men and two women met them in the corridor, everyone flying into swift action. One of the women came up to Tess and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I'm Gabrielle, Lucan's mate. Are you all right?"

Tess shrugged, then gave a vague nod. "Will Dante be okay?"

"I think he'll fare better if he knows you're near."

Gabrielle gestured for Tess to follow her down the corridor to the infirmary, the very wing where she had fled Dante in fear earlier that day. They entered the room where Dante had been brought, and Tess watched as his friends removed his weapons, then carefully stripped him out of his fatigues and boots and placed him in a hospital bed.

Tess was moved by the concern of all in the room. Dante was loved here, accepted for what he was. He had a family here, a home, a life–and yet he'd risked it all to save her. As much as she wanted to fear him, to resent him for everything that had gone between them, she couldn't. She looked at Dante, suffering in sacrifice for her, and all Tess felt was love.

"Let me," she said softly, moving to Dante's bedside. She met the worried faces of the other people who cared for him–the warriors gathered around him, the two women whose tender gazes said they understood what she was feeling. "Let me help him… please."

Tess touched Dante's cheek, stroking his strong jaw. She concentrated on his burns, letting her fingers trail down over his bare chest, over the beautiful markings that were blistered and raw, churning with angry color. As gently as she could, Tess placed her hands on the seared flesh, using her gift to draw away the radiation, take away the pain.

"Oh, my God," whispered one of the warriors. "She's healing him."

Tess heard the awestruck gasps, the words of hope that traveled among Dante's friends–his family. She felt some of their affection pouring over onto her, but as welcome as the warmth of their regard was, Tess's entire focus was on Dante. On making him well.

She leaned over him and pressed a kiss to his slack mouth, unfazed by the rasp of his fangs against her lips. She loved him wholly, just as he was, and she prayed for the chance to tell him so.

Dante was going to live. His UV burns had been severe–easily life-threatening–but his Breedmate's healing touch had ultimately proven more powerful than the death that stalked him. Like the others at the compound, Chase had been astonished at Tess's ability and at her clear devotion to Dante. She had stayed by his side every moment, caring for him as he had done for her when he'd rescued her from the Rogues' attack.

Everyone agreed they would make a good match: both of them strong as inpiduals; together they would be unbreakable.

With the worst of the storm past and the compound settling down into a peaceful sense of calm at the arrival of night, Chase's thoughts turned homeward too. His own journey wasn't at an end yet; the road ahead of him was murky and uncertain. Once it had all seemed so clear to him, what his future should hold, where he belonged… and with whom.

Now he wasn't sure about anything.

He said his good-byes to the warriors and their mates, then left, heading out of the Order's world, back to his own. The drive back into the city was quiet. The wheels of his borrowed vehicle were spinning, the road falling away behind him, but where was he going, after all?

Could he really call the Darkhaven home anymore? With his senses honed from the short time he'd spent in the company of the warriors, his body weighted down by all the metal he was carrying under his coat–the sundry blades, the Beretta 9mm that had somehow become a comforting presence against his hip–how could he ever expect to integrate back into the staid life he'd once known?

And what of Elise?

He could not go back to that tormented existence of wanting a woman he might never have. He'd have to tell her how he felt about her and let the chips fall where they may. She had to know everything. Chase didn't delude himself with the hope that she might welcome his affection. In fact, he wasn't even sure what to hope for. He only knew that the half-life he was living was over, starting now.

Chase turned onto the Darkhaven's gated drive with a sense of freedom washing through him. Things were about to change for him. While he couldn't guess at how everything might shake down from here, he felt liberated to know that he had reached a turning point in his life. He pulled up the gravel driveway and parked near the Darkhaven residence.

The house was lit up from within, Elise's bedroom and living quarters glowing with soft light. She was awake, probably anxiously waiting for him to return with word from the compound.

Chase killed the engine and opened the door of the vehicle. The instant his boots hit the ground, he got a prickling sense that he was not alone. He pocketed the keys and got out, discreetly unbuttoning his pea coat as he stood. His eyes scanned the night shadows, peering into the darkness for some sign of the enemy he knew was there. His ears were attuned to every subtle noise in his surroundings–the rustle of naked branches as the breeze soughed through them; the muffled drone of the stereo in the house, Elise's favorite soft jazz playing in the background…

And then, running counterpoint to all of that, the raspy wheeze of someone breathing not far from where Chase stood. There was a crunch of gravel behind him. Chase's fingers were already curled around the grip of the 9mm as he slowly pivoted to face the threat.

Camden.

The d?j? vu that hit Chase was like a cannon blast to the gut. But his nephew looked even worse than before, if that was possible. Caked in dried blood and gore, grisly evidence of recent kills that had not slaked his thirst, Camden came away from the hedge that had concealed him and loped closer. His huge fangs dripped saliva as he sized up Chase as his next fix for the Bloodlust that had taken over his body and mind. He had been unreachable when Chase encountered him in Ben Sullivan's apartment. Now he was dangerous and unpredictable, a rabid dog left to go feral too long.

Chase looked at him sadly, full of remorse for the fact that he hadn't been able to find him–hadn't been able to save him–in time to prevent this irrevocable transformation to Rogue.

"I'm so sorry, Cam. This never should have happened to you." Under the fall of his dark wool pea coat, Chase flipped off the Beretta's safety, slid the weapon out of the holster. "If it could be me instead, I swear… "

Behind him now, up at the house, Chase heard the metallic click of the front door opening, then Elise's sudden indrawn gasp. Time slowed at once. Everything spun out, reality descending into the thickness of a sluggish dream, a nightmare that began the instant Elise stepped outside. "Camden!" Her voice seemed oddly distant, slowed like the rest of the moment. "Oh… God… Camden!"

Chase swiveled his head toward her. He shouted for her to stay back, but she was already running, holding her arms wide, her white widow's garb fluttering around her like delicate moth's wings as she flew toward her son. Toward her certain and violent death, if Chase allowed her to get close enough to touch the Rogue vampire that had been her beloved son.

"Elise, stay back!"

But she ignored him. She kept coming, even when her tear-filled eyes focused on Camden's fearsome, hideous appearance. She choked on a sob, but her arms stayed open to him, her feet still moving across the lawn and down to the driveway.

In his peripheral vision, Chase saw the Rogue's savage amber gaze shift attention to Elise. Fixed on her now, the Bloodlusting vampire let out a terrible snarl, lowering into a crouch. Chase pivoted around and put himself squarely between mother and son. He had the pistol drawn and level before he even realized it.

Another second ticked by.

Elise was still coming, faster now, weeping and calling Camden's name.

Chase measured the distance with his gut, knowing that there were only seconds left before this confrontation would end in tragedy. He had no choice. He had to act. He couldn't stand by and risk her life–

The blast of gunfire cracked like thunder in the night.

Elise screamed. "No! Oh, God–nooo!"

Chase stood there, numb, his finger still squeezing the trigger down. The titanium-filled bullet had hit its target squarely in the center of the chest, dropping the Rogue to the ground. Already the sizzle of death had begun, erasing all doubt that there might have been a chance to save Camden from the Bloodlust that possessed him. The Crimson had turned him into the walking dead; now it was ended. Camden's suffering was over.

Elise's–and Chase's too–had only begun.

She raced up to him and beat her fists against him, making contact with his face, his shoulders, his chest, anywhere she could strike him. Her lavender eyes were swamped with tears, her beautiful face pale and stricken, her voice lost to the hitching sobs and wails that poured out of her throat.

Chase took the abuse in silence. What could he do? What was there to say?

He let her vent all of her hatred on him, and only when she finally stopped, pivoting around to collapse on the ground near the body of her son as the titanium quickly reduced his remains to ash, did Chase find the will to move. He stared at her hunched form trembling on the gravel driveway, his ears ringing with the mournful sounds of her grief. Then, in weary silence, he let the gun slip from his loose grasp.

He turned away from her, and from the Darkhaven sanctuary that had long been his home, and walked off into the darkness alone. Dante jolted awake, his eyelids flying open, breath sawing out of him. He'd been trapped by a wall of fire, blinded by the flames and ash. Unable to reach Tess. He sat up, panting, the vision still raw in his mind, scraping at his heart.

Oh, God, if he'd failed…

If he'd lost her…

"Dante?"

A profound relief swamped him at the sound of her voice, at the glorious realization that Tess was right there with him, seated at his bedside. He'd woken her from a drowsy sleep; she lifted her head from her arms, her hair in disarray, her gentle eyes shadowed with fatigue.

"Dante, you're awake." She brightened at once, coming up nearer to him and caressing his face and hair. "I've been so worried. How do you feel?"

He thought he should feel a hell of a lot worse than he did. But he was well enough to pull Tess into his arms. Strong enough to bring her onto his lap on the bed, where he kissed her soundly.

He was alive enough to know that what he needed more than anything right now was to feel her nude body pressed against his.

"I'm sorry," he murmured against her lips. "Tess, I am sorry for everything I've put you through–"

"Shh, we'll have time for that later. We can sort everything out later. Right now you need to rest."

"No," he said, too glad to be awake–to be with her–to think about wasting any more time on sleep.

"What I need to tell you can't wait. I saw something terrible today. I saw what it would be like to lose you. That's someplace I never want to go again. I need to know that you're protected, that you are safe –"

"I'm right here. You saved me, Dante."

He stroked the velvety skin of her cheek, so grateful that he could. "You're the one who saved me, Tess."

He wasn't talking about his injuries from the UV exposure, which she had healed with her amazing gift of touch. He wasn't talking about the first night he'd found her either, when her blood had fortified him when he was at his weakest. Tess had saved him in so many ways beyond any of that. This female owned him, heart and soul, and he wanted her to know that now.

"Everything makes sense when I'm with you, Tess. My life makes sense, after so many years of running scared in the dark. You are the light, the reason I live. I'm bonded to you deep, woman. For me, there will never be another."

"We're bonded by blood now," she said, but her faint smile wobbled on her lips. She glanced down, frowning. "What if you hadn't bitten me that night at my clinic? Without the blood bond, would you still… ?"

"Love you?" he finished for her, lifting her chin so that she could see the truth of it in his eyes. "It's always been you, Tess. I just didn't know it until that night. I had been searching for you my whole life, connected to you by the vision of what happened today." He smoothed her mussed hair, letting one of her honey-brown waves curl around his fingers. "You know, my mother swore by destiny. She believed in it, even though she knew her own destiny held bitter pain and loss. I never wanted to accept that belief for myself, that anything was preordained. I thought I was smarter than that, above it. But it was destiny that brought us together, Tess. I can't deny that now. God, Tess… have you any idea how long I've waited for you?"

"Oh, Dante," she whispered, blinking away a stray tear. "I wasn't prepared for any of this. I'm so afraid… "

He gathered her close, sick for everything she'd been forced to endure because of him. He knew the trauma of what happened today would stay with her for a long time. So much death and destruction. He never wanted her to feel that kind of pain again. "I need to know that you are somewhere you'll always be safe, Tess. Where I can protect you best. There are places that we can go, safe houses within the Breed. I've already talked to Chase about securing a place for us in one of the area Darkhavens."

"No." His heart sank as she carefully extricated herself from his embrace and sat on her knees beside him on the bed. She shook her head slowly. "Dante, no… "

God help him, but he couldn't speak. He waited in agonizing silence, knowing that he fully deserved her rejection. He deserved her contempt for so many reasons, yet he'd felt certain she cared for him. He prayed she might, even just a little bit.

"Tess, if you say you don't love me–"

"I do love you," she said at last. "I love you with all my heart."

"Then what is it?"

She looked at him searchingly, her aqua eyes moist but resolved. "I'm tired of running. I'm tired of hiding. You've opened my eyes to a world I never dreamed could exist. Your world, Dante."

He smiled at the beauty sitting next to him. "My world is you."

"And it's all of this too. This place, these people. The incredible legacy that you're a part of. Your world is dark and dangerous, Dante, but it's also extraordinary–like you. Like life. Don't ask me to run away from that. I want to be with you, but if I'm going to live in your world, then I want to do it here, where you belong. Where your family is."

"My family?"

She nodded. "The other warriors here and their mates. They love you. I saw that today. Maybe in time they might love me too."

"Tess." Dante pulled her close, embracing her with a full heart and a gratitude that soared into his chest like it was borne on wings. "You would want to be with me here, like this, as the mate of a warrior?"

"As the mate of my warrior," she corrected, smiling at him with love shining brightly in her eyes. "I can 't have it any other way."

Dante swallowed on a throat gone dry. He didn't deserve her. After all they'd been through, after all his ceaseless running, his heart had finally found its home. With Tess. With his beloved.

"What do you think?" she asked him. "Can you live with that?" "Eternally," Dante vowed, then pulled her back down onto the bed with him and sealed their pact with a passionate, endless kiss.

THE END

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