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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Twenty)

Tess dried the last of the dinner dishes and put them away in the cabinet next to the sink. As she snapped the plastic lid onto the leftover chicken marsala, she felt a pair of eyes boring into the back of her skull.

"You've got to be kidding me," she said, pivoting her head over her shoulder to look down at the whining little beast at her feet. "Harvard, are you still hungry? You do realize you've been eating practically nonstop since you got here."

The terrier's tufted brows quirked over his chocolate-brown eyes, his ears lifting high as he cocked his head at an adorable angle. When that didn't get her to move fast enough, he tilted his head in the other direction and raised one paw off the tile. Tess laughed. "All right, you shameless charmer. I'll give you some of the good stuff."

She walked over and retrieved the small bowl that had been licked clean of its second helping of canned Iams. Harvard trotted along, following her every step of the way. He'd been glued to her side all day, her new shadow since she'd made the decision to bring him home so she could keep a closer eye on him.

It wasn't something she'd ever done before with her patients, but then she'd never used her hands to heal one of them either. Harvard was special, and he seemed to be equally attached to her, as if he knew she'd brought him back from the brink today. After a round of IV fluids, some food, and a flea dip, he was a whole new dog. She didn't have the heart to leave him alone in the empty clinic kennels after everything he'd been through. Now he had decided she was his new best friend.

"Here you go," she said, cutting up a few small pieces of cooked chicken and dropping them in his bowl. "Try to pace yourself this time, okay?"

As Harvard went to town on the food, Tess put the rest of the leftovers in the refrigerator, then turned and poured herself another glass of chardonnay. She strode into the living room, where she'd left off with her sculpting. It had felt good to be working with her clay again, especially after the strange couple of days–and nights–she'd had.

Although she hadn't sat down with any plan for what she would make, Tess wasn't surprised when the lump of light brown Westklay began to take a familiar form. It was rough so far, only the general hint of a face beneath the tousled waves of thick hair she'd worked into the clay. Tess sipped her wine, knowing that if she went back to continue, she would only obsess and be at it all night, unable to tear herself away until the piece was finished.

Like she and Harvard had bigger plans or something?

Putting her wineglass down on the worktable, Tess pulled her wheeled stool over and took a seat. She started shaping the face, using a wire loop to gently carve the slope of the strong forehead and brow, then the nose and the lean angle of the cheekbones. In little time, her fingers were moving on automatic pilot, her mind disengaged and gone into its own flow, her subconscious directly commanding her hands into action.

She didn't know how long she'd been working, but when the hard rap sounded on her apartment door some time later, Tess nearly jumped out of her skin. Sleeping next to her feet on the rug, Harvard woke with a grunt.

"You expecting someone?" she asked quietly as she got up from her stool.

God, she must have been really zoned out while she was sculpting, because she'd seriously messed up around the mouth area of the piece. The lips were curled back in some kind of snarl, and the teeth…

The knock sounded again, followed by a deep voice that went through her like a bolt of electricity.

"Tess? Are you there?"

Dante.

Tess's eyes flew wide, then squeezed into a wince as she did a quick mental inventory of her appearance. Hair flung up into a careless knot on top of her head, braless in her white thermal henley and faded red sweats that had more than one dried clay smudge on them. Not exactly fit for company. "Dante?" she asked, stalling for time and just wanting to be sure her ears weren't playing tricks on her. "Is that you?"

"Yeah. Can I come in?"

"Um, sure. Just a sec," she called out, trying to sound casual as she threw a dry work cloth over her sculpture and quickly checked her face in the reflection off one of her putty spatulas.

Oh, lovely. She had a slightly crazed, starving-artist look going on. Very glamorous. That'll teach him to do the pop-in visit, she thought, as she padded over to the door and twisted the dead bolt.

"What are you do–"

Her question cut off as she opened the door and caught a glimpse of him. He was drenched from the rain, his dark hair spiked where it clung to his forehead and cheeks, leather coat dripping onto his black combat boots and the tattered welcome mat in the hall outside her place.

But that wasn't all he was dripping. Splotches of blood mingled with the rainwater, falling at a steady clip from an unseen injury.

"Oh, my God! Are you okay?" She moved aside to let him in, then closed the door behind him. "What happened to you?"

"I won't stay long. I probably shouldn't have come at all. You were the first person I thought of–"

"It's okay," she said. "Come in. I'll go get you a towel."

She ran down the hall to her linen closet and pulled out two towels, one to dry the rain off him and another for his wound. When she came back into the living room, Dante was in the process of taking off his coat. As he reached up to unzip it, Tess saw that his knuckles were bloodstained. There were splatters of the stuff on his face too, most of it diluted by the water that was still running off his chin and wet hair.

"You're pretty banged up," she said, concerned for him yet more than a little unsettled to see him looking like he'd been in some kind of nasty street fight. She didn't see any cuts on his hands or face, so maybe most of the blood there didn't belong to him. But that wasn't the case elsewhere.

As the heavy leather came open in the front, Tess sucked in her breath. "Oh, Jesus… "

A long laceration ran across the width of his right thigh, clearly a knife wound. The injury was still fresh, soaking his pant leg with blood.

"It's not a big deal," he said. "Trust me, I'll live."

He peeled off the coat and Tess's sympathy turned to ice.

Dante was armed like something out of an action-movie nightmare. A thick belt went around his hips, studded with several different kinds of blades, not the least of which were huge curved daggers sheathed on either side of him. Strapped across the chest of his black long-sleeved shirt was a gun holster sporting a deadly looking brushed-stainless monstrosity; she didn't even want to imagine the size of hole that thing could blast into someone. He had another gun secured around his left thigh.

"What the hell… " Tess instinctively shrank away from him, holding the towels against her like a shield.

Dante met her stricken, uncertain gaze and frowned. "I won't hurt you, Tess. These are just tools of my trade."

"Your trade?" She was still inching backward, movement she wasn't aware of until the backs of her calves came up against the coffee table in the center of the living room. "Dante, you're dressed like an assassin."

"Don't be afraid, Tess."

She wasn't. She was confused, concerned for him, but not afraid. He began taking off his weapons, unfastening his leg holster and holding it like he didn't know where to put it down. Tess gestured beside her, to the squat coffee table.

"May I have one of those towels, please?"

She handed him one, watching as he carefully placed his weapon on the table like he didn't want to add another nick to the already well-worn wood. Even armed to the teeth and bleeding, he was still considerate. Polite, even. A real gentleman, if you could get past all the deadly hardware and the aura of danger that seemed to radiate in visible waves off his huge body.

He took in her apartment with a quick glance, including the little dog who was sitting near Tess in guarded silence.

Dante frowned. "That can't be… ?"

Tess nodded, her tension eroding as Harvard went up to Dante, shyly wagging his tail in greeting. "I hope you don't mind that I brought him home with me. I wanted to keep a close watch on him, and I thought… "

Her excuse trailed off as Dante reached down to pet the animal, nothing but kindness in his touch and in his deep voice. "Hey, little guy," he said, chuckling as Harvard licked his hand, then dropped down on the floor for a belly rub. "Someone sure took good care of you today. Yeah, looks like somebody gave you a whole new leash on life."

He glanced up at Tess with a question in his eyes, but before he could ask her about the dog's sudden turnaround, she took his wet towel and nodded in the direction of her bathroom down the hall. "Come on, let me have a look at you now."

Idling at a red light on the other side of South Boston, Chase glanced over at his passenger in the SUV with barely concealed contempt. He personally had no use for the drug-dealing scum. Part of him enjoyed knowing that the human might have been heading for his own funeral if not for Dante and Chase showing up at his apartment tonight.

It didn't seem fair, a lowlife like Ben Sullivan getting a lucky break while innocent youths like Camden and the others who were missing ended up dead or worse, lost to Crimson-induced Bloodlust and gone Rogue by the shit this human peddled to them.

Chase weathered a sudden, sickening recollection of Dante putting a blade to Jonas Redmond's throat in the alley outside the club the other night. That good kid was dead, not because of the warrior but because of the human sitting just an arm's length away from him now. The urge to reach over and blow him away with a bullet to the head came up on Chase like a tsunami, rage he was unused to feeling in himself. He stared ahead out the tinted windshield, willing the temptation to pass. Killing Ben Sullivan wasn't going to solve anything, and it sure wouldn't bring Camden home any sooner.

And that, after all, was his primary objective.

"He's sleeping with her, isn't he–that other guy and Tess?" The human's voice rattled Chase out of his contemplation, but he didn't acknowledge the question. Ben Sullivan cursed, his head turned to stare out the passenger-side window. "When I saw them together outside her place last night, the son of a bitch had his hands all over her. What's that all about–is he just using her to get to me?"

Chase remained silent. He'd been wondering about that revelation since it had first come up at Sullivan 's apartment. Dante had said he'd used his own methods to find the Crimson dealer, and hearing that he' d been with a woman whom Sullivan had apparently been close to, Chase had initially assumed she'd been a means to an end for Dante.

But the warrior's face had taken on an odd cast at the mention of the female, something that seemed to go beyond simple duty to his mission. Did he care for her?

"Shit. I guess it doesn't really matter," Sullivan muttered. "Where are you taking me, anyway?"

Chase didn't feel compelled to answer. The Order's compound was just outside the city proper, a short drive northeast from where they were now. In a few hours, after he was interrogated by Dante and the others, Ben Sullivan would be sleeping in a dry, warm bed–a prisoner for all intents and purposes, but nevertheless protected behind the secured gates of the warriors' headquarters. Meanwhile, dozens of Darkhaven youths were out in the elements topside, exposed to the dangers of the street and the terrible effects of Sullivan's corrosive, deadly drug.

It wasn't right, not just at all.

Chase flicked his eyes up at the light as it turned green, but his foot hovered over the gas. Behind him, someone laid on their horn. He tuned it out, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel for a second as he thought about Camden and Elise, about his promise to bring the boy home.

He didn't have a lot of options here. And time was running out, he could feel it.

When a second horn blast sounded from the rear, Chase brought his foot down on the accelerator and hung a left at the light. In grim silence, he put the SUV on a southbound path, heading back into the city, toward the old industrial area near the river.

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