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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Thirty-three)

Tess's heart took a sharp pe into her stomach. "W-what did you say?"

Dante looked at her, those whiskey-gold eyes far too serious, his expression much too calm. "I am one of the Breed. A vampire."

"Oh, my God," she moaned, her skin going tight with alarm, with revulsion.

She didn't want to believe it–he didn't look like the creatures who'd assaulted her or the one who now lay in an anguished ball on the floor of the infirmary. But Dante's tone was so level and matter-of-fact, she knew he was telling her the truth. Maybe for the first time since she'd met him, he was finally being honest with her.

"You lied to me. All this time, you've been lying to me."

"I wanted to tell you, Tess. I've been trying to find the words to tell you–"

"That you're some kind of sick monster? That you've been using me–for what, just to get close to Ben so that you and your bloodsucking buddies could kill him?"

"We haven't killed the human, I swear to you. But that doesn't mean I won't, if it comes down to that. And, yes, at first I needed to know if you were involved in his Crimson dealing, and I thought you might be useful in getting more information on those activities. I had a mission, Tess. But I also needed your trust so that I could protect you."

"I don't need your protection."

"Yes, you do."

"No," she said, numb with a heavy kind of dread. "What I need is to get as far away from you as I can."

"Tess, the safest place for you now is here, with me."

When he came toward her, holding out his hands in a gesture that begged trust, she recoiled. "Stay away from me. I mean it, Dante. Get away!"

"I'm not going to hurt you. I promise."

An image slammed into the front of her consciousness as he said the words. In her mind, Tess was suddenly transported to her clinic storeroom, crouching down over a badly injured man who'd somehow found his way inside after a vicious fight on the streets Halloween night. He was a stranger to her then, but not now.

It was Dante's face she saw, bloodstained and grimy, his hair dripping wet as it spiked down over his brow. His lips moved, speaking the same words she heard him speak now: I'm not going to hurt you… I promise…

She had an abrupt but very distinct memory of strong hands gripping her by the arms, holding her in place. Of Dante's lips peeling back from his teeth–revealing huge white fangs that came toward her throat.

"I didn't know you," Dante was saying now, as if he could track her thoughts with his mind. "I was weakened and seriously wounded. I would only have taken what I needed from you and left you alone. There would have been no pain for you, no distress. I had no idea what I had done until I saw your mark –"

"You bit me… you… Oh, God, you drank my blood that night? How… why am I only now remembering this?"

His stark features softened somewhat, as if in remorse. "I erased your memory. I tried to explain things to you, but the situation was too far out of hand. We struggled, and you injected me with a sedative. By the time I came to, it was almost dawn and there was no time for talking. I thought it best for you that you didn't remember. Then I saw the mark on your hand, and I knew there could be no taking back any of what I'd done to you." Tess didn't need to look down at her right hand to know the mark he spoke of. The small birthmark had always been curious to her, a teardrop poised over the bowl of a crescent moon. But it didn't make any more sense to her now than it ever had.

"Not many women have the mark, Tess. Only a rare few. You're a Breedmate. If one of my kind takes your blood into his body, or gives you his, a bond is forged. It is unbreakable."

"And you… did this to me?"

Another memory swamped her now, a further remembrance of blood and darkness. Tess recalled waking from a shadowy dream, her mouth filled with a roaring force of energy, of life. She had been starved, and Dante fed her. From his wrist and then, later, from a vein he had opened for her in his neck.

"Oh, my God," she whispered. "What have you done to me?"

"I saved your life by giving you my blood. Just as you saved mine with yours."

"You gave me no choice, either time," she gasped. "What am I now? Have you turned me into the same kind of monster that you are?"

"No. That's not the way it works. You will never become a vampire. But if you continue to feed from me as my mate, you can live for a very long time. As long as I will. Longer, perhaps."

"I don't believe this. I refuse to believe this!"

Tess pivoted for the swinging doors of the infirmary and pushed against the panels. They didn't budge. She pushed again, putting all of her strength into it. Nothing. It was as though they were fused on their hinges, completely immobile.

"Let me out of here," she told Dante, suspecting that it was his will alone that kept the doors from opening for her. "Goddamn you, Dante. Let me go!"

As soon as the door gave the slightest bit, Tess pushed it open and bolted through at a dead run. She had no idea where she was going and didn't care, so long as it put distance between herself and Dante, the man she only thought she knew. The man she actually believed she was in love with. The monster who had betrayed her more deeply than anyone in her tormented past.

Sick with fear and angered at her own stupidity, Tess choked back the tears that stung her eyes. She ran harder, knowing that Dante was certain to catch up to her. She just had to find a way out of the place. Running up to a bank of elevators, she pressed the call button and prayed the doors would open. Seconds ticked by… too many for her to risk waiting.

"Tess." Dante's deep voice startled her with its nearness. He was right behind her, close enough to touch her, even though she hadn't heard him approach.

With a cry, she ducked out of his reach and made another mad dash down one of the corridor's twisting lengths. There was an open, arched entryway up ahead of her. Maybe she could hide in the chamber, she thought, desperation making her grasp for any means of escaping the nightmare that was pursuing her now. She slipped inside the dim space–a cathedral of some sort, with carved stone walls lit only by a single red pillar candle that glowed near an unadorned altar.

There was nowhere to conceal herself in the small sanctuary, only twin rows of benches and the stone pedestal at the front of the room. On the other side was another arched doorway, opening into more darkness; it was impossible for her to discern where it might lead. It didn't matter, anyway. Dante was standing in the open doorway off the corridor, his muscular body never looking more imposing than it did as he stepped into the small cathedral and began a slow prowl toward her.

"Tess, we don't have to do this. Let's talk." His powerful stride faltered for a second, and he scowled, bringing his hand up to his temple as if he were in pain. When he spoke again, his voice had dropped a full octave in pitch, coming out of him in a dark snarl. "Christ, can we just… Let's be reasonable, try to work this out."

Tess backed up, inching closer to the far wall of the chamber and the arched hollow carved into the stone.

"Damn it, Tess. Hear me out. I love you."

"Don't say that. Haven't you told me enough lies already?"

"It's no lie. I wish it was, but–"

Dante took another step, and his knee suddenly gave out beneath him. He hissed as he caught himself on one of the low benches, his fingers digging into the wood so hard, Tess thought it a wonder he didn't crush it.

Something strange was happening to his features. Even with his head dropped down, she could see that his face was growing sharper, his cheeks seeming leaner, more angular, his golden skin stretched tight over the bones. He spat a curse, something she didn't recognize any more than she did the gravelly roughness of his voice.

"Tess… you have to trust me."

She moved closer to the archway, leading with her hand as she sidled along the wall. And then she was standing in front of the opening, nothing but pitch blackness behind her and a thin, chill breeze at her back. She turned her head to glance into the dark–

"Tess."

Dante must have sensed her movement, because when she looked back at him, he lifted his head and met her gaze. The warm color of his eyes had changed to a fierce glow, his pupils narrowing down to bare slits as she watched his transformation in stunned horror.

"Don't go," he rasped thickly, his words tangling on the lengthening sharpness of a spectacular set of fangs. "I won't hurt you."

"It's too late, Dante. You already have," she whispered, moving farther away from him, stepping back into the arched doorway. In the darkness, she saw that a flight of stone steps climbed steeply upward, toward the source of the cool air that drifted down around her. Wherever they led, she had to go. She put her foot on the first step–

"Tess!"

She didn't look back at him. She knew she couldn't or she might not find the courage to leave him. She climbed the first few steps tentatively, then began running, taking the flight as quickly as she could.

Down below, Dante's anguished roar echoed off the stone walls of the cathedral and the darkened stairwell, straight into the marrow of her bones. Tess didn't stop. She ran faster up what seemed like hundreds of steps, until she reached a solid steel door at the top. She slapped her palms against it and pushed it open.

Blinding daylight poured over her. A cool November breeze sent dried leaves spiraling up from the grass outside. Tess let the door close behind her with a bang. Then she wrapped her arms around herself and took off, running into the crisp, bright morning.

Dante thrashed on the floor, caught in the grip of his persistent, debilitating nightmare. The death vision had come on suddenly, intensifying as he and Tess argued.

It only worsened now that she was gone. Dante heard the topside door slam closed above and knew from the brief flash of daylight that shot down the long stairwell that even if he was able to break away from the invisible chains that held him, the sun's brutal rays would prohibit him from going after her.

He sank deeper into the abyss of his premonition, where vines of thick black smoke curled around his limbs and throat, choking off precious air. The shattered remains of a smoke alarm hung from the ceiling by its mangled wire guts, silent as the smoke collected around it.

From elsewhere came the angry crash of objects falling, as if fixtures and furniture were being overturned and thrown to the floor by a marauding army. All around him in the small white cell that held him, Dante saw upended cabinet drawers and files, their contents spilled everywhere, rifled through in haste.

In the vision, he was moving now, stepping through the debris and making his way to the closed door on the other side of the room. Oh, Jesus. He knew this place, he realized now.

He was in Tess's clinic.

But where was she?

Dante registered that he ached everywhere, his body feeling battered and tired, each step sluggish. Before he could reach the door and try to get out, it opened from the other side. A familiar face leered at him through the smoke.

"Look who's up and about," Ben Sullivan said, coming inside and holding a length of telephone cord in his hands. "Death by fire is such a nasty way to go. Of course, if you breathe in enough smoke, the flames will be just an afterthought."

Dante knew he shouldn't be afraid, but terror clawed at him as his would-be executioner entered the room and took hold of him in a surprisingly strong grasp. Dante tried to fight, but his limbs didn't seem his own to command. His struggles only slowed Sullivan down. Then the human cocked his arm back and nailed Dante with a blow to the jaw.

His vision swam crazily. When he next opened his eyes, he was on his stomach, lying on a raised slab of cold polished steel while Ben Sullivan pulled his hands behind his back, then bound him at the wrists with the cable he was holding. Dante should have been able to snap his bonds loose, but they held tight. The human moved down to his feet, hog-tying him.

"You know, I thought killing you was going to be difficult," the Crimson dealer whispered near his ear, the same words Dante had heard the last time he'd endured this glimpse of death. "You've made it very easy for me."

As he'd done before, Ben Sullivan went around to the front of the platform and bent down in front of Dante. He grabbed Dante by the hair and lifted his face up off the cold metal. Past Sullivan's head, Dante saw a clock on the wall above the door, the time reading 11:39. He struggled to collect more detail, knowing he would need all he could gather in order to confront this eventuality and maybe turn it around in his favor. He didn't even know if it might be possible to cheat fate, but he was damn well going to give it a shot.

"It didn't have to be like this," Sullivan was saying now. The human leaned in close–close enough that Dante saw the vacant gaze of a Minion staring back at him. "Just know that you brought this on yourself. Be grateful I didn't turn you over to my Master instead."

With that, Ben Sullivan released him, letting Dante's head fall back down. As the Minion strode out of the room and locked the door, Dante opened his eyes and saw his reflection in the polished steel surface of the table on which he lay.

No, not his reflection.

Tess's.

Not his body bound on the examination table while the clinic was being consumed in smoke and flames, but hers.

Oh, mother of Christ.

It wasn't his horrific death he'd been experiencing in his nightmares all these years. It was the death of his Breedmate, the woman he loved.

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