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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Twenty-four)

The early-dawn colors seemed brighter to Tess, the November air crisply invigorating outside her apartment as she finished up her short walk with Harvard. As she and the terrier jogged up the stairs of her building, she felt stronger, lighter, no longer weighed down by the awful secret she'd been carrying all these years. She had Dante to thank for that. She had him to thank for so much, she thought, her heart throbbing, her body still humming with the sweet ache of their lovemaking.

She'd been hugely disappointed to wake up and find him gone, but the note he'd left folded on her nightstand took away most of that sting. Tess dug the piece of paper out of the pocket of her fleece track pants as she pushed open her apartment door and let Harvard off his leash.

Strolling into her kitchen in need of coffee, she read Dante's bold handwriting for about the tenth time, her broad smile seeming permanently stuck on her face: Didn't want to wake you but had to leave. Have dinner with me tomorrow night? I want to show you where I live. I'll call you. Sleep tight, angel. Yours, D.

Yours, he'd signed it.

Hers.

A wave of fierce possessiveness swamped her at the thought. Tess told herself that it meant nothing, that she was foolish to read anything into Dante's words or to imagine that the powerful connection she felt toward him might be mutual, but she was practically giddy as she set the note down on the counter.

She glanced at the little dog who was dancing around her feet, waiting for his breakfast. "Well, Harvard, what do you think? Am I getting in too deep here? I'm not actually falling for him, am I?"

God, was she… falling in love?

A week ago she hadn't known he existed, so how could she even consider that her feelings might go that far this fast? But somehow they did. She was falling in love with Dante, maybe already had, judging by the sharp tumble her heart was taking just thinking about him now.

Harvard's eager bark snapped her out of the emotional free fall. "Right," she said, looking down into his furry face. "Kibble and coffee, not necessarily in that order. I'm on it."

She filled her Mr. Coffee machine with Starbucks grounds and cold water from the tap, hit the button to start it brewing, then went to retrieve a bowl and the dry dog food from the pantry. As she passed her kitchen phone, she saw that the message indicator was flashing.

"Here you go, baby," she said, pouring a serving of Iams into Harvard's dish and setting it down on the floor. "Bon app?tit."

With more than a little hope that the message might have been from Dante calling while she was out walking his dog, Tess pressed the play button and put the voice mail on speaker. She waited anxiously, punching in her pass code and listening as the automated greeting announced that she had one new message, time-stamped from late last night, and began playing it back to her.

"Tess! Jesus Christ, why aren't you picking up your fucking phone?"

It was Ben, she realized, her disappointment over that fact swiftly draining into alarm at the odd tone of his voice. She'd never heard him sound so panicked, so unglued. He was breathing hard, panting, his words spilling out of him. He wasn't merely afraid. He was terrified. Worry clutched at her with icy talons as she listened to the rest of his call.

"–needed to warn you. The guy you're seeing, he's not what you think. They busted into my place tonight–him and some other dude. I thought they were going to kill me, Tess! But it's you I' m afraid for now. You've got to stay away from him. He's into some fucked-up shit… I know this sounds crazy, but the guy he was with tonight… I don't think–ah, Jesus, I just have to say it–I don't think he's human. Maybe neither of them is. The other guy took me away in an SUV–I should've tried to get the number off the plates or something, but everything was happening so fucking fast. He drove me down to the river and he attacked me, Tess. The son of a bitch had these huge teeth–they were fangs, I swear to God, and his eyes were lit up like they were on fire! He wasn't human. Tess, they're not… human."

She backed away from the counter as the message played on, Ben's voice chilling her as much as the things he was telling her.

"Asshole bit me–smashed my head into a car window, beat me nearly unconscious, and then… he fucking bit me! Ah, Christ, my neck is still bleeding. I gotta get to a hospital or something… "

Tess retreated into her living room, as if the distance from Ben's voice would somehow insulate her from what she was hearing. She didn't know how to make sense of any of it.

How could Dante be involved–even peripherally–in an attack on Ben like the one he described? True, after he'd arrived at her place last night loaded down with weapons and bleeding from an obvious altercation, he had said he'd been pursuing a drug dealer. It certainly could have been Ben he was talking about. Tess had to admit, albeit sadly, that it wasn't that big of a stretch to imagine Ben falling back into his old ways.

But he was talking absolute nonsense now. Men who could turn into fanged monsters? Savagery that belonged in a horror movie? Those things had no place in real life, not even in the harshest realm of reality. It just wasn't possible.

Was it?

Tess found herself standing in front of the shrouded sculpture she'd been working on last night, the one of Dante's likeness. The one she'd botched and would probably end up throwing away. She'd gotten his mouth all wrong, hadn't she? Given him some strange sort of sneer that didn't look like him at all?

Now her fingers tingled as she reached for the scrap of cloth that covered the piece. Confusion and an odd, niggling dread sat in her stomach like a stone as she grasped the edge of the fabric and drew it clear of the bust. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw what she had done–the mistake she'd made had given Dante a wild, almost animal-like appearance… right down to the sharp canines that turned his smile into a feral-looking sneer.

Inexplicably, she had given him fangs.

"I'm really afraid, Tess. For both of us," Ben's voice said over the speaker of her answering machine. "Just… whatever you do, stay the hell away from these guys."

Dante flipped his malebranche blades, one in each hand, the steel flashing in the fluorescent lights of the compound's training facility. He spun at blinding speed and struck hard at the polymer target dummy, ripping twin razor-sharp lacerations several inches into the thick plastic hide. With a roar, he pivoted around and went at it again with a further assault.

He needed to feel at least the semblance of combat, because if he sat still for more than a second, he was going to kill someone. Top on his list at the moment was Darkhaven Agent Sterling Chase. Ben Sullivan was a damn close runner-up. Hell, if he could take both of them out at once, so much the better. He'd been fuming ever since he returned to the compound and learned that the agent had been a no-show with their Crimson dealer. Lucan and the others were giving Chase the benefit of the doubt for now, but Dante had a feeling in his gut that Chase, for whatever his reasons, had willfully defied his order to take Ben Sullivan into custody at the compound.

Dante meant to find out what had happened, but phone calls, e-mails, and pages to the agent's Darkhaven residence had gone unanswered. Unfortunately, an in-person interrogation was going to have to wait until sundown.

Which is roughly ten frigging hours away, Dante thought, delivering another savage attack on the target dummy.

The wait was made even worse by the fact that he'd been unable to reach Tess either. He called her apartment first thing in the morning, but she had apparently already left for work. He hoped she was somewhere safe. Assuming Chase hadn't killed Ben Sullivan, the human could be loose on the streets, and that meant he could get to Tess. Dante didn't think she was in danger from her ex-boyfriend, but he really wasn't willing to take that risk.

He needed to bring her inside, explain to her everything that was happening, including who he truly was–what he truly was–and admit how he had brought her into the middle of this war between the Breed and its enemies.

He was going to do it tonight. He'd already set the stage with the note he'd left at her bedside, but now the sense of urgency was growing. He wanted it done and over with already, hated being so far removed from her while he waited for night to fall.

With a roar, he flew at his target again, hands moving so fast even he couldn't track them. He heard the glass doors to the training facility slide open some distance behind him, but he was too lost in his own angry frustration to give a damn if he had an audience. He kept slicing, jabbing, brutalizing his target until he was panting with the exertion, a sheen of sweat breaking out on his bare chest and brow. Finally he paused, astonished at the depth of his fury. The polymer dummy was cut to pieces, most of it in shredded chunks around his feet.

"Nice work," Lucan drawled from across the large facility. "You got something against plastic, or is this just a warm-up for tonight?"

With an exhaled curse, Dante flipped his blades between his fingers, letting the curved metal dance before he thrust both weapons into the sheaths belted at his hips. He pivoted to face the Order's leader, who was leaning back against a weapons cabinet, a grave look on his dark features.

"We've got some news," Lucan said, obviously expecting it wasn't going to go over well. "Gideon just hacked into the Darkhavens' Enforcement Agency personnel database. Turns out Agent Sterling Chase doesn't work for them anymore. They released him from service last month, after a spotless twenty-five-year career."

"He was fired?"

Lucan nodded. "For insubordination and flagrant refusal to follow Agency directives, according to the file."

Dante pushed out a humorless chuckle as he toweled off. "Agent Sterling's not so sterling after all, eh? Goddamn it, I knew there was something off about the guy. He's been fucking playing us this whole time. Why? What's he after?" Lucan shrugged idly. "Maybe he needed us to get him close to the Crimson dealer. What's to say he didn't take the guy out last night? Some kind of personal vendetta."

"Maybe. I don't know, but I mean to find out." Dante cleared his throat, feeling suddenly awkward in the presence of the elder vampire, who had long been a brother-in-arms–a friend, in fact. "Listen, Lucan. I haven't exactly been playing straight lately either. Something's happened–the night I almost got my ass handed to me down at the river by those Rogues. I, uh, I came to in the back room of an animal clinic. There was a woman there, working late. I needed blood in a bad way, and she was the only one around."

Lucan's dark brows came down in a scowl. "You kill her?"

"No. No, I was out of my head, but it didn't go that far. Far enough, though. I didn't realize what I had done to her until it was too late. When I saw the mark on her hand–"

"Ah, Jesus, Dante." The large male stared at him, those gray eyes lancing into him. "You drank from a Breedmate?"

"Yeah. Her name is Tess."

"Does she know? What have you told her?"

Dante shook his head. "She doesn't know anything yet. I scrubbed her memory that night, but I've been, uh… spending time with her. A lot of time. I have to cop to her about what I've done, Lucan. She deserves to have the truth. Even if she ends up hating me for it, which wouldn't surprise me."

Lucan's shrewd gaze narrowed. "You care for her."

"God. Yeah, I do." Dante's answering chuckle sounded sharp in his ears. "Sure as hell didn't see this coming, let me tell you. And to be honest, I don't know what I'm going to do about it. I'm not exactly premium mate material."

"You think I am?" Lucan asked wryly.

It was only a few months ago that Lucan was fighting a similar personal battle, having lost his heart to a female bearing the Breedmate mark. Dante didn't know the specifics of how Lucan won Gabrielle over, but part of him envied the long future the pair would share together. All Dante had to look forward to was a death he'd been dodging for a couple of centuries.

Thinking about Tess being anywhere near him on that day made his blood run cold with dread.

"I don't know how things are going to shake down, but I need to tell her everything. I'd like to bring her here tonight, maybe help it all make sense." He ran a hand through his damp hair. "Hell, maybe I'm just a pussy and I need to know I've got my"–he almost said family–"the Order behind me on this."

Lucan smiled, nodding slowly. "You always will," he said, reaching out to clap Dante on the shoulder. "Gotta tell you, I'm looking forward to meeting the woman who can scare the shit out of one of the fiercest warriors I've ever known."

Dante laughed. "She's fine, Lucan. Damn, she is just so incredibly fine."

"At sundown, you take Tegan with you when you head out to question Chase. Bring him back in one piece, we clear? Then you go make things right with your Breedmate." "Chase I can handle," Dante said. "It's the other part I'm not so sure about. You got any advice for me on that, Lucan?"

"Sure." The vampire grunted, his smile filled with dark amusement. "Dust off your knees, brother, because you may damn well end up walking on them before the night is through."

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