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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Thirty-two)

Dante was gone longer than a few minutes, and the waiting made Tess anxious. She had so many questions, so much to sort out in her mind. And despite the internal, enlivened buzzing of her body, on the outside she felt strung out, antsy.

A hot shower in Dante's spacious bathroom helped wash away some of that feeling, and so did the fresh change of clothes that he had left for her in the bedroom. With Harvard watching from his curled-up position on the bed, Tess put on the tan cords and brown knit shirt, then sat down to slip on her shoes. Scuff marks and small splatters of blood were vivid reminders of the attack she'd suffered. An attack, Dante would have her believe, perpetrated by inhuman creatures with a thirst–an addiction–to blood.

Vampires.

There had to be a more logical explanation, something grounded in fact, not folklore. Tess knew it was impossible, yet she knew what she had experienced. She knew what she had seen, when her first assailant leaped off Ben's apartment balcony on foot and dropped to the ground, as fluid as a cat. She knew what she had felt, when that man and another who joined him hauled her off the sidewalk and into the old shed. They had bitten her, like rabid animals. They had punctured her skin with huge fangs and drawn her blood into their mouths, feeding off her like something out of a horror movie.

Like the vampires Dante had proclaimed them to be.

At least she was safe now, wherever Dante had brought her. She looked around the large bedroom with its simple, understated furnishings. The furniture was masculine, with clean lines and dark finishes. The only indulgence was the bed. The king-size four-poster dominated the room, its glossy black silk sheets as soft and sleek as a raven's wing.

Tess found similar tasteful appointments in the adjacent living room. Dante's quarters felt comfortable and unfussy, like the man himself. The whole place seemed homey, but it didn't feel like a house. There were no windows on any of the walls, just expensive-looking contemporary art and framed photography. He had mentioned this place was a compound, and now Tess wondered precisely where she was.

She walked out of the living room to a tiled foyer. Curious, she opened the door and peered out onto a corridor of glossy white marble. Tess looked up the long hallway, then down the other side. It was empty, just a curving tunnel of polished stone. On the floor, inlaid into the snowy marble, was a series of symbols–interlocking geometric arcs and swirls rendered in obsidian. They were unusual and intriguing, some of them forming similar patterns to the beautiful multihued tattoos Dante sported on his torso and arms.

Tess bent down to get a closer look. She was so involved in studying the symbols that she didn't realize Harvard was near until the terrier slipped past her and started trotting off down the corridor.

"Harvard, get back here!" she called after him, but the dog kept running, disappearing around a bend in the curved hallway.

Damn it.

Tess stood up, shot a glance up and down the vacant corridor, then went after him. The pursuit led her down one long stretch of corridor, then another. Every time she got close to catching the errant terrier, he dodged capture, trotting through the endless maze of hallway as if they were playing a game.

"Harvard, you little shit, stop right now!" she whispered sharply and to no avail.

She was impatient now and uncertain if she should be traipsing around the place alone. Even though she couldn't see them, she was sure security cameras were clocking her every move from within the opaque glass orbs that were installed every few feet in the corridor ceiling.

There were no signs anywhere to indicate her location or to note where any of the labyrinthine corridors led. Wherever it was that Dante called home, it was rigged up like some high-tech government agency. Which only gave more credibility to his outrageous claims of an underworld war and the existence of dangerous creatures of the night. Tess followed the dog around a sharp right turn that opened onto another wing of the compound. Finally, Harvard's run was thwarted. A pair of swinging doors blocked his path at the end of the hall, the small square windows at eye level cloudy with frosted glass.

Tess approached cautiously, not wanting to frighten the dog out of her reach but also unsure what might be on the other side of those doors. It was quiet here, nothing but endless white marble everywhere she looked. There was a vaguely antiseptic smell in the air. From somewhere not far, her ears picked up the faint electronic beep of medical equipment and some other rhythmic, metallic clank that she could not place.

Was this some kind of medical wing? It felt sterile enough, but there were no outward indications of patients inside, no staff rushing about. No one at all, from what she could tell.

"Come here, you little beast," she muttered, bending down to retrieve Harvard from where he'd stalled out near the doors.

Holding him close to her chest in one arm, Tess slowly pushed open one of the doors a crack and peeked inside. Only dim light shone beyond the doors, a soothing semidarkness. There was a row of closed doors on both sides of the interior hallway. She slipped through the swinging doors and walked a few paces inside.

Right away she found the source of the beeping: A digital panel was mounted to a wall on her left, its array of monitoring lights dark except for a handful in a grid on the lower portion of the board. It appeared to be some kind of EKG monitor, although it was nothing like any she'd seen before. And coming from the farthest room in the hallway was the repetitive clank and thunk of something heavy.

"Hello?" Tess called into the empty space. "Is someone in here?"

The instant the words left her lips, all other sound around her ceased, including the beeps of the monitor. She glanced to the grid just in time to see the lights blink off. Like someone had disconnected them from within the far room.

A feeling of unease crept up her spine. In her arms, Harvard started to squirm and whimper. He wriggled away from her, jumping down and scrambling back up the corridor. Tess couldn't name the dread that was running through her, but she wasn't about to stand around and wonder either.

She turned back for the doors. Started walking briskly toward them, her head turned to watch for movement behind her. She felt a sudden drop in the temperature–a chill breeze on her skin, crawling up the back of her neck.

"Shit," she whispered, more than a little unnerved.

She put her hand out to push open the door and jumped back when her palm connected with something warm and unmoving. Tess stopped short and swung her head around in shock. Her gaze latched on to a hideously scarred face and torso of an immense, muscular man.

No, not a man.

A monster, with the huge fangs and fiercely glowing amber eyes of the ones who had assaulted her in the street.

A vampire.

In a flash of vivid, horrific remembrance, Tess was bombarded with images of the earlier attack: bruising fingers digging into her arms, holding her down; sharp teeth tearing into her, the endless, fevered pulls at her veins; awful, animalistic grunts and moans as the beasts fed on her. She saw the moonlit pavement, the darkened alleyway, the ramshackle shed where she'd thought she was going to die.

And then, just as suddenly but oddly out of place, she saw the small storage room in the back of her clinic. There was a big man with dark hair huddled on the floor, bleeding. He was dying, riddled with bullets and other terrible wounds. She reached out to him–

No, that didn't belong in her memories. It hadn't actually happened… had it?

She didn't have a chance to try putting the pieces in place. The vampire blocking her escape stalked forward, his head cocked as he glared at her in wild fury, those enormous fangs deadly white and sharp enough to tear her to shreds.

Dante stood in Gideon and Savannah's study, waiting for a verdict on the flash drive Tess had been carrying in her coat pocket. "You think you can get around the encryption on that thing, Gid?"

"Please." The blond vampire slanted him an arch look. "You jest," he said, leaning heavily on his faded English accent. He already had the drive plugged into his computer, his fingers flying over the keyboard. " I've hacked into the FBI, the CIA, our own IID, and just about every other hack-proof database in existence. This will be cake."

"Yeah? Let me know what you find. I gotta go now. I left Tess waiting–"

"Not so fast," Gideon said. "I'm almost in. Trust me, this won't take long, maybe five minutes. Let's make it interesting. Give me two minutes, thirty seconds, tops."

Beside him, leaning back against the antique carved mahogany desk in dark jeans and a black sweater, Savannah smiled and rolled her eyes. "He lives to impress, you know that."

"Be a hell of a lot easier to take if the bastard wasn't always right," Dante drawled.

Savannah laughed. "Welcome to my world."

"Too bad you can't read computer files with your touch," he told her. "Then we wouldn't need to put up with this guy."

"Alas," she sighed dramatically. "Psychometry doesn't work that way, at least not for me. I can tell you what Ben Sullivan was wearing when he handled the flash drive, describe the room he was in, his state of mind, but I can't penetrate electronic circuitry. Gideon's our best hope for that."

Dante shrugged. "Just our luck, eh?"

Over at the computer, Gideon hit one last series of keystrokes, then sat back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head. "I'm in. Looks like one minute, forty-nine seconds, to be exact."

Dante walked around to look at the screen. "What have we got?"

"Data files. Spreadsheets. Flow charts. Pharmaceutical tables." Gideon rolled the mouse and clicked one of the files open. "Looks like a chemistry experiment. Anyone need a recipe for Crimson?"

"Jesus Christ. This is it?" "I'm betting so." Gideon scowled, clicking through more files on-screen. "There's more than one formula stored on the drive, however. We can't know which of them is valid until we obtain the ingredients and test each one."

Dante raked a hand through his hair and began pacing. He was curious to know more about the formulas Ben Sullivan had stored on the drive, but at the same time he was damn itchy to be back in his quarters. He could sense Tess's restlessness too, the connection they now shared through the blood bond like an unseen tether linking him to her as though they were one.

"How is she doing?" Savannah asked, obviously aware of his distraction.

"Better," he said. "She's awake and healing. Physically, she's fine. As for the rest, I've been trying to fill her in on everything, but I know she's confused."

Savannah nodded. "Who wouldn't be? I thought Gideon was a crazy fool when he first told me about all of this."

"You still think I'm a crazy fool most of the time, love. That's part of my charm." He bent toward her and faked a bite of her denim-clad thigh, his fingers not skipping a beat on the keys.

Playfully batting him away, Savannah stood up and came over to where Dante was trying to wear a track in the rug. "Do you think Tess might be hungry? I've got breakfast started in the kitchen for Gabrielle and me. I can prepare a tray for Tess, if you'd like to bring it to her."

"Yeah. Thanks, Savannah. Food would be great."

God, he hadn't even considered that Tess would need to eat. What a stellar mate he was proving to be already. He hardly took decent care of himself and now he had a Breedmate to think about, with human wants and needs that were well outside his areas of expertise. Oddly enough, where the thought might have given him doubts in the not-so-distant past, now he found the idea almost… pleasant. He wanted to provide for Tess, in every way. He wanted to protect her and make her happy, spoil her like a princess.

For the first time in his long life, he felt as if he'd found true purpose. Not the honor and duty that drove him as a warrior, but something equally compelling and righteous. Something that called to everything male in him.

He felt as if this bond he'd found–this love he had for Tess–might actually be strong enough to make him forget about the death and anguish that had been stalking him. Some hopeful part of him wanted to believe that with Tess beside him, maybe he could find a way to thwart it.

Dante hadn't even begun to enjoy that slender hope before a scream ripped through him like a blade. He felt it physically, but the assault was on his senses, a fact he realized when neither Savannah nor Gideon reacted to the terrified shriek that froze Dante's heart to ice in his chest.

It tore through him again, leaving him shuddering in its wake.

"Oh, Jesus. Tess!"

"What's wrong?" Savannah paused on her way to the kitchen. "Dante?"

"It's Tess," he said, already training his mind on her, homing in on her location in the compound. "She' s somewhere in the compound–the infirmary, I think." "I'll get a visual." At the computer, Gideon quickly brought up the display for one of the corridor's video monitors. "I've got her, D. Ah, hell. She's run into Rio down there. He's got her cornered–"

Dante took off at a dead run before the words were out of Gideon's mouth. He didn't need to see the screen to confirm where Tess was or what was giving her such a fright. He bolted out of Savannah and Gideon's apartments, hauling ass into the heart of the compound. Knowing the layout of the place inside and out, he took the shortest route down to the medical wing, using all the preternatural speed at his command.

Dante heard Rio's voice even before he reached the set of swinging doors that led into the medical wing.

"I asked you a question, female. What the fuck do you think you're doing down here?"

"Get away from her!" Dante shouted as he entered the infirmary, hoping like hell he wasn't going to have to do battle with one of his own. "Back off, Rio. Now."

"Dante!" Tess cried, panting with fear. Her face was ashen, her body trembling uncontrollably from behind the massive wall of Rio's body. The warrior had her trapped against the corridor wall, animosity radiating off him in blasting pulses of heat.

"Let her go," Dante ordered his brethren.

"Dante, be careful! He'll kill you!"

"No, he won't. It's okay, Tess."

"This female doesn't belong here," Rio snarled.

"I say she does. Now back off and let her go."

Rio relaxed only a fraction and swung his head around to look at Dante. Jesus, it was hard to remember the warrior before the ambush that had left him so wrecked, both physically and emotionally. The once-handsome face of the Spaniard with the ready smile and lazy wit was now a tangle of ruddy scars; his humor had long abandoned him for the fury that might never ease.

Dante parked himself right in Rio's face, staring past the scars on the warrior's cheeks and brow into the nearly insane eyes that looked so Roguelike even Dante was taken aback for a second. "I said, stand down," he growled. "The woman is with me. She is mine. Do you understand?"

Sanity flared within the bright amber depths of Rio's eyes, a lightning-quick glint of awareness, of contrition and regret. He wheeled away from Dante with a grunt, his breath still sawing in and out of his open mouth.

"Tess, it's okay now. Step away from him and come to me."

She let out a broken gasp but didn't seem capable of moving. Dante held his hand out to her.

"Come on, angel. Everything's all right. I promise you, you're safe."

Looking as if it took all her courage to do so, Tess sidled away from Rio and put her hand in Dante's open palm. He brought her to him and kissed her, relieved to have her near.

As Rio slunk to the corridor wall and dropped into a huddled crouch on the floor, Dante's pulse downshifted to something almost resembling normal. Tess was still upset and trembling, and while he didn 't think Rio posed any danger to her–especially now that Dante had made his position clear–he had some serious damage control to handle.

"Stay here. I'm just going to help Rio get back to his bed–"

"Are you crazy? Dante, we have to get out of here. He will tear both our throats open!"

"No, he won't." He held Tess's anxious gaze even as he moved closer to Rio's huddled form on the floor. "He won't hurt me. He wouldn't have hurt you either. He didn't know who you were, and something very bad happened to him that's made him wary of females. Believe me, he's not a monster."

Tess gaped at Dante as if he'd lost his mind. "Dante, the fangs… those eyes! He's one of the ones who attacked me–"

"No," Dante said. "He only looks like them because he's angry, and he's in a lot of pain. His name is Rio. He's a Breed warrior, like me."

"Vampire," she gasped brokenly. "He's a vampire… "

Damn it, he hadn't meant for her to learn the truth like this. God help him, but he'd thought he could ease her into his world–a world that belonged to them both–once she understood the vampire race was nothing to be feared, and once she saw how she was part of it, as a Breedmate.

As the only woman he would ever want at his side.

But everything was unraveling fast, a thread of half-truths and secrets that was spiraling down around his feet as she stared at him in panic, her eyes pleading with him to make sense of an unfathomable situation.

"Yes," Dante admitted, unwilling to lie to her. "Rio is a vampire, Tess. Like me."

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