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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Twenty-nine)

Tess thought she must be dying. She felt weightless and leaden at the same time, floating in a neverland between the pain of one world and the deep unknown of the next. The dark undertow of that further, unfamiliar place tugged at her, but she wasn't afraid. A soothing warmth enveloped her, as if strong angel 's wings were folded around her, holding her aloft over the rising tide that lapped gently at her limbs.

She sank into that warm embrace. She needed that abiding, steady strength.

There were voices around her, pitched low and urgent in tone, yet the words were indistinct. Her body vibrated with the constant hum of motion beneath her, her senses gone sluggish with the occasional sway of her limbs. Was she being carried somewhere? She was too exhausted to wonder, too content to simply drift away in the protective warmth that cocooned her.

She wanted to sleep. Just melt away and sleep, forever…

A droplet of something hot splashed against her lips. Like silk, it ran along the seam of her mouth in a slow trail, its enticing fragrance drifting up into her nose. Another drop fell against her lips, warm and wet and heady as wine, and her tongue drifted out to taste it.

As soon as her mouth parted open, it was flooded with liquid heat. She moaned, uncertain what she was tasting but full with the knowledge that she needed more. The first swallow roared through her like an enormous wave. There was more for her to take, a steady flow that she latched on to with her lips and tongue, drawing from the font as though she were dying of thirst. Maybe she was. All she knew was that she wanted it, needed it, and couldn't get enough.

Someone murmured her name, softly, deeply, as she drank the strange elixir. She knew the voice. She knew the scent that seemed to bloom all around her and spill into her mouth.

She knew that he was saving her, the dark angel whose arms protected her now.

Dante.

It was Dante with her in this peculiar void; she knew it with every particle of her being.

Tess was still floating, held aloft over the churning sea of the unknown. Slowly, the dark water rose up to engulf her, thick as cream, warm as a bath. Dante eased her into it, his arms holding her steady, so strong and gentle. She dissolved into the rolling tide, drinking it down, feeling it soak into her muscles, her bones, her smallest cells.

In the peace that washed over her, Tess's consciousness slipped into another world, one that came to her in shades of deep scarlet, crimson, and wine.

The drive to the compound took an eternity, even though Tegan had to have set a few land speed records navigating through Boston's busy, winding streets to the private drive leading to the Order's headquarters. As soon as the Rover came to a stop in the fleet garage, Dante threw open the back door of the vehicle and carefully brought Tess out in his arms.

She was still in and out of consciousness, still weak from blood loss and shock, but he felt some hope that she would live. She had taken only a small amount of his blood; now that she was safe at the compound, he would make sure she got as much as she needed.

Hell, he'd bleed himself out completely if that's what it would take to save her.

God, that wasn't just some bullshit noble idea; he really meant it. He was desperate that Tess survive, so much that he would die for her. The physical ties of their completed blood bond ensured that he felt protective of her, but this was something stronger than that. It went deeper than he could ever have guessed.

He loved her.

The ferocity of his emotion struck Dante as he carried Tess into the garage elevator, Tegan and Chase on his heels. Someone hit the button to descend and they began the smooth, silent ride down the three hundred-some feet of earth and steel that sheltered the Breed's compound from the rest of the world.

When the doors slid open, Lucan was standing in the corridor outside the elevator. Gideon was next to him, both warriors armed and wearing grave expressions. No doubt Lucan had been alerted to the others' urgent arrival when the Rover showed up on the compound gate's security camera.

He took one look at Dante and the savaged female in his arms and exhaled a dark curse. "What happened?"

"Let me through," Dante said as he moved past his brethren, careful not to jostle Tess in the process. " She needs to rest someplace warm. She's lost a lot of blood–"

"I can see that. Now, what the hell happened out there?"

"Rogues," Chase put in, taking over the explanation to Lucan while Dante stepped out into the corridor, all his focus on Tess. "A group of them were sacking the Crimson dealer's apartment. I don't know what they were looking for, but the woman must have come up on them somehow. Maybe she got in their way. She's got bite wounds on her arm and throat, from more than one attacker."

Dante nodded at the facts, grateful for the Darkhaven vampire's verbal assist since his own voice seemed to have dried up in his throat.

"Jesus," Lucan said, turning a grim glance on Dante. "This is the Breedmate you spoke of? This is Tess?"

"Yeah." He looked down at her, so still and colorless in his arms, and felt a piercing chill bore into his chest. "Another few seconds and I might have been too late… "

"Goddamn suckheads," Gideon hissed as he raked a hand through his hair. "I'll go prep a room for her in the infirmary."

"No." Dante's reply was sharper than intended, and unyielding. He held out his scored wrist, the skin still red and wet at the place he'd fed her. "She is mine. She stays with me."

Gideon's eyes widened, but he said nothing more. Nor did anyone else, as Dante brushed past the group of warriors and headed with Tess down the maze of hallways to his private quarters. Once inside, he brought her into the bedroom and gently placed her on the king-size bed. He kept the lights dim, his voice soft and low, as he set about trying to make her comfortable.

With a mental command, he willed the bathroom sink on, running warm water into the basin as he carefully removed the makeshift bandages that covered Tess's wrist and neck. She had stopped bleeding, thankfully. Her wounds were raw and hideous on her flawless skin, but the worst of the injuries was past.

Seeing the ugly marks left by the Rogues who attacked her, Dante wished he had Tess's healing touch. He wanted to erase the injuries before she had a chance to see them, but he couldn't work that kind of miracle. His blood would heal her from within, replenish her body and give her a preternatural vitality she' d never known. Over time, if she fed from him regularly as his mate, her health would be ageless. In time the scars would mend too. Not soon enough for him. He wanted to tear her attackers apart all over again, torture them slowly instead of delivering the efficient death the Rogues had received.

The need for violence, for vengeance against every Rogue who could ever harm her, seethed through him like acid. Dante tamped the urge down, throwing all of his energy into tending Tess with reverent, gentle hands. He eased her out of her bloodstained jacket, peeling off the sleeves and then lifting her slack body to free her of it. The pullover sweater she wore beneath was ruined as well, the celery-colored wool soaked a garish red around the neck and the edge of the long sleeve.

He would have to cut the sweater off; no way he was going to try to pull it over her head and disturb the nasty bite wound at her throat. Retrieving one of the daggers sheathed at his hip, he slid the blade under the hem and ripped a clean line up the center of the garment. The soft wool fell away, exposing Tess's creamy torso and the peach-hued lace of her bra.

A sexual stirring roused within him, as automatic as breathing, as he looked down on the perfection of her skin, the sweetly feminine curves of her body. Seeing her always brought out his hunger, but seeing her marked by rough Rogue hands put a steadying calm in him that trumped even the strength of his base desire to possess her.

She was safe now, and that was all he needed.

Dante set the blade down on the nightstand, then removed Tess's ruined sweater and dropped it next to the jacket beside the bed. The room was warm, but her skin was still cool to the touch. Pulling the edge of the black silk comforter from the other side of his large bed, he covered her, then went into the bathroom to get a soapy washcloth and a fresh towel to clean her up. As he came back out to the bedroom, he heard a quiet rap on the open door of his quarters, too soft to belong to any of the warriors.

"Dante?" Savannah's velvety voice was even softer than her knock. She came in carrying a handful of ointments and medicines, her dark, gentle eyes filled with sympathy. Lucan's mate, Gabrielle, was with her, the auburn-haired Breedmate holding a plush robe over her arm. "We heard what happened and thought we'd bring a few things to help make her more comfortable."

"Thank you."

He watched idly from the bedside as the other women approached to set down their items. His main focus was on Tess. He lifted her hand and carefully swept the edge of the warm washcloth over the crusted blood on her wrist, his strokes as light as he could manage with his large clumsy hands that were better suited to holding firearms or steel.

"Is she all right?" Gabrielle asked from behind him. "Lucan said you put her to your vein to save her."

Dante nodded, but he felt no pride over what he'd done. "She'll hate me for it when she understands what it means. She doesn't know that she's a Breedmate. She doesn't know… what I am."

He was stunned to feel a small hand light reassuringly on his shoulder. "Then you should tell her, Dante. Don't put it off. Trust her enough that she will make sense of the truth, even if she is resistant to accept it at first."

"Yes," he said, "I know she deserves the truth."

He was gratified by Gabrielle's sympathetic gesture and by the soundness of her advice. She spoke from experience, after all. The female had been through her own astonishing truth with Lucan just a few months earlier. Although the pair were inseparable ever since and clearly in love, Lucan and Gabrielle's journey had been anything but smooth. None of the warriors knew the specifics, but Dante could guess that Lucan and his stony, remote nature hadn't made it easy for either of them.

Savannah stepped up next to him at the bed now. "After you clean her wounds, put some of this ointment on them. Along with your blood in her system, the medicine will help speed the healing and lessen her scars."

"Okay." Dante took the jar of homemade remedy and set it down on the nightstand. "Thank you. Both of you."

The women gave him understanding smiles, then Savannah bent to pick up Tess's soiled jacket and sweater.

"I don't think these will be of any use to her now." The instant her fingers closed around the clothing, her smooth features pinched. She closed her eyes, wincing. Her breath caught, then leaked out of her in a shaky sigh. "My Lord, the poor thing. The attack on her was so… savage. Did you know they nearly bled her dry?"

Dante inclined his head. "I know."

"She was almost gone by the time that you–Well, you saved her, and that's what matters," Savannah said, adopting a serene tone that didn't quite mask the discomfort she was feeling after reading the terrible details of Tess's attack. "If you need anything at all, Dante, just ask. Gabrielle and I will do whatever we can to help."

He nodded, already going back to work on Tess's wounds with the damp cloth. He heard the women leave, and the space around him went still with the weight of his thoughts. He didn't know how long he remained at Tess's side–easily hours. He cleaned her up and toweled her off, then climbed in bed next to her and stretched out against her, just watching her sleep and praying that she would open her beautiful eyes for him again soon.

A hundred thoughts went through his mind as he lay there, a hundred promises he wanted to make to her. He wanted her to be safe always, to be happy. He wanted her to live forever. With him, if she'd have him; without, if that was the only other way. He would look after her as long as he was able, and if –more likely when–the death that stalked him finally caught up to him, he would have already seen to it that there would always be a place for Tess among the Breed.

God, was he actually thinking about the future?

Planning for it?

It seemed so strange that, after spending his entire life living like there was no tomorrow, convinced that at any second there would be no tomorrow, all it took was one woman to throw all of that fatalistic thinking right over a cliff. He still believed death was around the corner–he knew it with the same clarity that his mother knew her own death and that of her mate–but one extraordinary woman had made him hope like hell that he was wrong.

Tess made him wish that he had all the time in the world, so long as he could spend every second of it with her.

She had to wake up soon. She had to get better, because he had to make things right with her. She had to know how he felt, what she meant to him–and what he'd done to her, by binding them together in blood. How long should it take for his blood to absorb into her body and begin its rejuvenation? How much would she need? She had taken only the smallest amount in the ride to the compound, just the few scant drops he could work into her mouth and down her slack throat. Maybe she needed more.

Using the dagger next to him on the nightstand, Dante scored a fresh line on his wrist. He pressed the bleeding cut to Tess's lips, waiting to feel her respond, wanting to curse to the rafters when her mouth remained unmoving, his blood dripping down, useless, onto her chin.

"Come on, angel. Drink for me." He stroked her cool cheek, brushed a tangle of her honey-blond hair from her forehead. "Please live, Tess… drink, and live."

A throat cleared awkwardly from the area near the bedroom doorjamb. "I'm sorry, the uh… the door was open."

Chase. Just fucking great. Dante couldn't think of anyone he'd like to see less right now. He was too entrenched in what he was doing–in what he was feeling–to deal with another interruption, particularly one coming from the Darkhaven agent. He'd hoped the bastard was already long gone from the compound, back to where he came from–preferably with one of Lucan's size-fourteens planted all the way up his ass. Then again, maybe Lucan was saving the privilege for Dante instead.

"Get out," he growled.

"Is she drinking at all?"

Dante scoffed, low under his breath. "What part of `get out' did you fail to understand, Harvard? I don't need an audience right now, and I sure as hell don't need any more of your bullshit."

He pressed his wrist to Tess's lips again, parting them with the fingers of his free hand in the hopes that she might take some of his blood by mild force. It wasn't happening. Dante's eyes stung as he stared down at her. He felt wetness streaking his cheeks. Tasted the salt of tears gathering at the corner of his mouth.

"Shit," he muttered, wiping his face into his shoulder in a strange mix of confusion and despair.

He heard footsteps coming up near the bed. Felt the air around him stir as Chase reached out his hand. "It might work better if you tilt her head, like th–"

"Don't… touch her." The words came out in a voice Dante hardly recognized as his own, it was so full of venom and deadly warning. He swiveled his head around and met the agent's eyes, his vision burning and sharp, his fangs having stretched long in an instant.

The protective urge boiling through him was fierce, utterly lethal, and Chase evidently understood at once. He backed off, hands raised in front of him. "I'm sorry. I meant no harm. I only wanted to help, Dante. And to apologize."

"Don't bother." He turned back to Tess, miserable with worry and craving solitude. "I don't need anything from you, Harvard. Except your absence."

A long silence answered, and for a moment Dante wondered if the agent had actually slunk away as he hoped. No such luck.

"I understand how you feel, Dante."

"Do you." "I think so, yes. Now I think I understand a lot of things that I didn't before."

"Well, good for you. Fucking brilliant of you, former Agent Chase. Write it up in one of your pointless reports and maybe your buddies in the Darkhavens will pin a goddamn medal of commendation on you. Harvard finally clues in on something."

The vampire chuckled wryly, without rancor. "I've fucked up, I know. I've lied to you and to the others, and I've jeopardized this mission because of personal, selfish motives. It was wrong, what I did. And I want you to know–especially you, Dante–that I'm sorry."

Dante's pulse was hammering with fury, and with fear for Tess's condition as well, but he did not lash out at Chase as impulse made him want to do. He heard the contrition in the male's voice. And he heard humility, something generally on short order with Dante himself. Until now. Until Tess.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Honestly? Because I see how much you care about this woman. You care, and you're scared shitless about it. You're afraid you're going to lose her, and right now you'll do anything to hold on to her."

"I'd kill for her," Dante said quietly. "I would die for her."

"Yes. I know you would. Maybe you can see how easy it would be to lie, cheat, or even give up your life's purpose to help her–to do anything, risk anything, if it would mean protecting her from any more hurt."

Frowning with new comprehension and suddenly unable to despise the agent any longer, Dante turned to look at Chase. "You said you had no female in your life, no family or obligations beyond your brother' s widow… "

Chase smiled vaguely. Etched in misery and longing, the vampire's face said it all. "Her name is Elise. She was there tonight, when you and Tegan came to pick me up at my home."

He should have known. He did know, on some level, Dante acknowledged now. Chase's reaction when the woman came outside had been virulent, unhinged. It was only when he saw her potentially in harm's way that he lost his usual cool. He'd looked like he'd wanted to tear Tegan's head off for touching the female, a possessiveness that went beyond simple defense of one's kin.

And by the look on Chase's face, he was alone in his affection.

"Anyway," the agent said abruptly. "I just… wanted you to know that I'm sorry for everything. I want to help you and the rest of the Order in any way I can, so if there is anything you need, you know where I am."

"Chase," Dante said as the male turned to leave the room. "Apology accepted, man. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry too. I haven't been fair to you either. Despite our differences, know that I respect you. The Agency lost a good one the day they cut you loose."

Chase's smile was crooked as he acknowledged the praise with a short nod.

Dante cleared his throat. "And about that offer of help… "

"Name it."

"Tess was walking a dog when the Rogues attacked her tonight. Ugly little mutt, not good for much more than a foot-warmer, but it's special to her. Actually, it was a gift from me, more or less. Anyway, the dog was running loose on its leash when I saw it a block or so away from Ben Sullivan's place."

"You want me to go retrieve a wayward canine, is that where this is heading?"

"Well, you did say anything, didn't you?"

"So I did." Chase chuckled. "All right. I will."

Dante dug the keys to his Porsche out of his pocket and tossed them to the other vampire. As Chase turned to be on his way again, Dante added, "The little beast answers to the name Harvard, by the way."

"Harvard," Chase drawled, shaking his head and throwing a smirk in Dante's direction. "I don't suppose that's a coincidence."

Dante shrugged. "Good to see that Ivy League pedigree of yours comes in handy for something."

"Jesus Christ, warrior. You really were busting my ass since the minute I came on board, weren't you? "

"Hey, by all comparisons, I was kind. Do yourself a favor and don't look too closely at Niko's shooting targets, unless you're very secure about your manhood."

"Assholes," Chase muttered, but there was only humor in his tone. "Sit tight, and I'll be back in a few with your mutt. Anything else you're gonna hit me up for now that I opened my big yap about wanting to get square with you?"

"Actually, there might be something else," Dante replied, his thoughts going sober when he considered Tess and any kind of future that might be deserving of her. "But we can talk about that when you get back, yeah?"

Chase nodded, catching on to the turn in mood. "Yeah. Sure we can."

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