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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Twenty-five)

Tess had a full day of appointments and walk-ins at the clinic, work she was grateful for because it helped give her something to think about besides Ben's disturbing telephone message. Yet it was impossible to put his call out of her mind completely. He was in some serious trouble–injured and bleeding besides.

Now, it seemed, he had simply vanished.

She'd tried calling his apartment several times, and his cell phone, the area hospitals… but there was no sign of him anywhere. If she had known how or where to contact his parents, she would have tried them too, even though the odds of Ben turning up there were slim to none. As it stood, the only other thing she could think of was to go past his place after work and see if she could find some sign of him there. She wasn't holding out a lot of hope, but what were her alternatives?

"Nora, patient in Two needs a combo test and urine sample," Tess said, coming out of the examination room. "Can you get those for me while I check the X-rays of our collie with the joint inflammations?"

"You got it."

"Thanks."

As she grabbed the films for her next patient, her cell phone went off in her lab-coat pocket, the vibration beating against her thigh like bird's wings. She dug the device out and checked the ID to see if it might be Ben. The number was blocked.

Oh, God.

She knew who it was, who it had to be. She'd been suspended in an awful state between anticipation and dread all morning, knowing that Dante was going to call. He'd called her apartment as she was leaving early that day, but she'd let the blocked call go straight to voice mail. She hadn't been ready to talk to him then; she wasn't at all sure she was ready now.

Tess walked down the hall to her office and closed the door, her spine sagging against the cool metal. The phone trembled in her hand as it rang for the fifth and probably final time. She shut her eyes and touched the talk button. "Hello?"

"Hey, angel."

The sound of Dante's deep, delicious voice sent a slow current through her. She didn't want to feel the warmth that spread along her limbs and pooled in the center of her being, but it was there, melting the edges of her resolve.

"Everything okay?" he asked when she fell silent, an air of protective concern in his tone. "You still with me, or did I lose you?"

She sighed, unsure how to answer that.

"Tess? What's wrong?"

For a long few seconds, all she could do was breathe in and out. She hardly knew where to begin, and she was terrified of where it was all going to end now. A thousand questions crowded her mind, a thousand doubts that had been raised in the hours since she'd listened to Ben's bizarre message.

Part of her doubted Ben's outrageous claims–the rational part of her that knew better than to believe there could be monsters loose on the streets of Boston. Yet there was another part of her that wasn't as quick to dismiss the unexplainable, the stuff that existed with or without tidy logic or conventional science.

"Tess," Dante said amid the quiet, "you know you can talk to me."

"Do I?" she said, finally pushing words out of her mouth. "I'm not sure what I know right now, Dante. I'm not sure what to think–about anything."

He swore, a snarled oath spoken in Italian. "What happened? Are you… hurt? Jesus, if he touched you in any way–"

Tess scoffed. "I suppose that answers one thing for me already. We're talking about Ben, aren't we? He was the drug dealer you were after last night?"

There was a slight hesitation. "Have you seen him today, Tess? Have you seen him at any time since you and I were together last night?"

"No," she said. "I haven't seen him, Dante."

"But you spoke with him. When?"

"He called last night and left a message, evidently while we were… " She shook her head, not wanting to remember how wonderful it had felt to lie in her bed in Dante's arms, how protected and peaceful she' d felt. Now all she felt was a pervading chill. "Is that why you've been screwing around with me, because you needed me in order to get close to him?"

"Christ, no. It's a lot more complicated than that–"

"How complicated? Have you been playing me all this time? Or did the real game start the night you showed up here with your dog and we–Oh, my God, now even that makes more sense. Harvard isn't your dog at all, is he? What did you do, take some stray animal off the street to use as bait for reeling me into your sick game?"

"Tess, please. I wanted to explain–" "Go ahead. I'm listening."

"Not like this," he growled. "I'm not going to do this over the phone." She felt a dark tension growing in him as he spoke, could almost see him pacing on the other end, alive with restless energy, his black brows low over his eyes in a scowl, his strong hand raking over his scalp. "Listen, you need to stay away from Ben Sullivan. He's involved in something very dangerous. I don't want you anywhere near him, do you understand?"

"That's funny. He said the same thing about you. He said a lot of things, actually. Crazy things, like how your partner brutally assaulted him last night."

"What?"

"He said he'd been bitten, Dante. Can you explain that to me? He said the man you were with when the two of you broke into Ben's apartment took him away in a car and then savagely attacked him. According to Ben, he was bitten in the throat."

"Son of a bitch."

"Can that be true?" she asked, horrified that he hadn't even attempted to deny it was possible. "Do you know where Ben is? I haven't heard from him since that call. Have you or your friends done something to him? I have to see him."

"No! I don't know where he is, Tess, but you have to promise me you'll stay away from him."

Tess felt miserable, scared, and confused. "What's happening here, Dante? What are you really involved in?"

"Tess, look. I need you to go somewhere safe. Right now. Go to a hotel, a public building, anywhere –just go right now and stay there until I can come and get you tonight."

Tess laughed, but it was a humorless sound that grated in her ears. "I'm working, Dante. And even if I wasn't, I don't think I'd go anywhere to wait for you. Not until I understand what's going on here."

"I will tell you, Tess. I promise you. I had planned to tell you all of it, even if this hadn't happened."

"Okay, fine. My schedule is booked solid today, but I can break for lunch in a couple of hours. If you want to talk to me, you'll have to come here."

"I… God damn it. I can't do that right now, Tess. I just… can't. It has to be tonight. You have to trust me."

"Trust you," she whispered, closing her eyes and tipping her head back against the office door. "I guess that's something I can't do right now, Dante. I have to go. Good-bye."

She flipped the cell phone closed and shut the ringer off altogether. She didn't want to talk anymore, not to anyone.

As Tess walked over to put the cell on her desk, her gaze caught on something else that had been troubling her since she'd found it earlier that morning. It was a computer flash drive, a slim, portable data-storage device. She'd discovered it underneath the lip of the examination table in one of her clinic rooms–the very room where Ben had been yesterday, when she'd caught him unexpectedly and he'd made excuses that he came in to repair the table's sticky hydraulics. Tess had suspected he wasn't being truthful with her–about a lot of things. Now she knew that was the case. But the question was, why?

In a furious mental outburst, Dante glared at his cell phone and sent the device hurtling against the opposite wall of his living quarters. It shattered with the impact, emitting a shower of sparks and smoke as it broke into a hundred tiny pieces. The destruction was satisfying, if brief. But it did nothing to assuage his anger, all of it self-directed.

Dante resumed the tight pacing he'd been doing while on the phone with Tess. He needed to be moving now. He just needed to keep his limbs in action, his mind alert.

He'd been making a brilliant mess of everything lately. While he'd never held an inkling of regret for being born of the Breed, now his vampire blood seethed with frustration over the fact that he was trapped inside. Denied the possibility of fixing things with Tess until the sun finally retreated below the horizon and freed him to move about in her world.

He thought the wait was going to drive him out of his mind.

It nearly had.

By the time he went to find Tegan in the training facility at a few minutes to sundown, his skin was hot and prickling, too tight everywhere. He was antsy and itching for combat. His ears were ringing, the incessant buzz like a swarm of bees in his blood.

"You ready to roll, T?"

The tawny-haired Gen One warrior looked up from the Beretta he was loading and gave a cold smile as the clip snapped into place. "Let's do it."

Together they headed up the winding corridor of the compound to the elevator that would take them to the Order's fleet garage on street level.

As the doors closed, Dante's nostrils began to tickle with the acrid tang of smoke. He glanced at Tegan, but the other male seemed unaffected, his gem-green eyes fixed before him, characteristic in their unblinking, emotionless calm.

The elevator car began its silent climb upward. Dante felt an intense heat lapping at him from the ghost of a flame, just waiting for him to slow down enough that it could catch him. He knew what this was, of course. The death vision had been dogging him all day, but he'd managed to beat it back, refusing to give in to the sensory torture when he needed his head fully in the game tonight.

But now, as the elevator reached its destination, the precognition slammed into his head like a hammer. Dante went down on one knee, leveled by the force of the hit.

"Jesus," Tegan said from beside him as Dante felt the warrior take his arm to keep him from sprawling on the elevator floor. "What the hell? You all right?"

Dante couldn't answer. His sight filled with billowing black smoke shot with bright plumes of flame. Over the crackle and hiss of encroaching fire, he could hear someone talking–taunting him, it seemed– the voice low, indistinct. This was new, a further detail in the elusive nightmare he'd come to know so well.

He blinked away some of the haze, struggling to stay present. To stay conscious. He caught a glimpse of Tegan's face in front of him. Shit, he must look bad, because the warrior who was known for his ruthless lack of feeling now suddenly flinched back, pulling his hand away from Dante's arm with a hiss. Behind his pained grimace, the tips of Tegan's fangs shone white. His light brows dropped down low over his narrowed emerald eyes.

"Can't… breathe… " Dante gasped, every panting breath he took dragging more phantom smoke into his lungs. Choking him. "Ah, God… dying… "

Tegan's eyes bored into him, flinty sharp. His gaze was unsympathetic but level with a strength Dante knew would keep him steady.

"You hang on," Tegan demanded. "It's a vision, it's not reality. Not yet, anyway. Now, stay in there, ride it out. Go back as far as you can, and absorb all of the detail."

Dante let the images swamp him once more, knowing Tegan was right. He had to open his mind to the pain and fear so he could look past it to the truth.

Panting, his skin searing from the heat of the inferno surging all around him, Dante forced himself to focus on his surroundings. To place himself deeper into the moment. He stretched his mind backward from the worst of the vision, halting the action, then sending it into reverse.

The flames shrank away. The smoke reduced from massive, roiling clouds of black ash to thin gray tendrils that crept in along the ceiling. Dante could breathe now, but fear still clogged his throat with the realization that these would be his last few minutes of life.

Someone was in the room with him. A male, judging from the scent of him. Dante was lying prone on something icy cold and slick while his captor yanked his hands behind his back, then bound him at the wrists with a length of wire cord. He should have been able to snap it like twine, but it wouldn't budge. His strength was useless. The captor bound Dante's feet next, then hog-tied him on his stomach, a slab of bare metal beneath him.

Loud crashes sounded from somewhere outside the room. He heard bansheelike shrieks, smelled the coppery stench of death nearby.

And then, a low taunt sounded near his ear: "You know, I thought killing you was going to be difficult. You've made it very easy for me."

The voice faded into a self-amused chuckle as Dante's captor came around to where his head hung over the edge of the metal platform that held him. Denim-clad legs bent at the knee, and slowly the torso of his would-be killer came into Dante's line of sight. Rough fingers grasped him by the hair, lifting his head up to face him in the instant before the vision started to fade away, as quickly as it had come…

Holy hell.

"Ben Sullivan." Dante spat the name out like ash on his tongue. Released from the clutches of the premonition, he dragged himself to a sitting position on the floor. Dante wiped the sheen of sweat from his brow as Tegan stared at him in grave acceptance. "Son of a bitch. It's the Crimson dealer, Ben Sullivan. I don't fucking believe it. That human–he's the one who's going to kill me."

Tegan gave a grim shake of his head. "Not if we make him dead first." Dante pushed himself up to his feet, planting one palm against the concrete wall next to the elevator while he tried to catch his breath. Beneath his fatigue, rage simmered, for Ben Sullivan and for former Agent Sterling Chase, who'd evidently taken it upon himself to let the bastard go.

"Let's get the hell out of here," he growled, already stalking across the cavernous garage, flipping one of his malebranche blades between his fingers.

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