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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Twenty-one)

"Good Lord," Tess gasped, feeling a little queasy as she knelt down in front of Dante to inspect his wound. He was sitting on the edge of the white porcelain bathtub, wearing only his shredded black fatigues. The cut on his thigh seemed better than it had on initial glance in her living room, but in the bright lights of the bathroom, the sight of so much blood–Dante's blood–made her stomach dip sharply and her head spin. She had to reach out for the lip of the tub to keep from swaying on her heels. "Sorry. I'm not usually affected like this. I mean, I see a lot of ugly injuries at the clinic, but–"

"You don't have to help with this, Tess. I'm used to taking care of myself."

She gave him a dubious look. "From the amount of blood on you, I'd say this wound is pretty deep. It 's going to require stitches, a lot of them. Somehow I don't think you're up to doing that yourself, are you? And you're going to need to get out of these pants. I can't do much so long as you're wearing them."

When he didn't move, she frowned. "You're not going to just sit here and bleed all over my tile, are you?"

His gaze on hers, he gave a slight shrug, then stood and unfastened the button at his waistband. When he started sliding the zipper down over his tattooed skin and the dark thatch of hair at his groin, Tess's cheeks warmed. God, after last night, she should have remembered that he wasn't a boxers or briefs kind of guy.

"Um, here's another towel," she said, pulling one off the bar for him to cover himself.

She turned her head as he finished undressing, although it was probably a little late for modesty considering what they'd done together the night before. Being with him again, especially when he was sitting there naked except for a piece of terry cloth, made the small bathroom seem as tight as a closet and as humid as a sauna.

"So, are you going to tell me what happened to you?" she asked without looking at him yet, busying herself with the small collection of medical supplies she'd assembled on the sink vanity. "What were you doing tonight to end up on the business end of an obviously very large knife?"

"Just par for the course. My partner and I were in the process of apprehending a drug dealer, and I ran across a couple of obstacles. I had to remove them."

Remove them, Tess thought, instinctively understanding what that actually meant. She set a roll of gauze bandage down on the basin, feeling an inward shudder at Dante's cold admission. She didn't like what she was hearing, but he'd sworn he was a good guy, and maybe it was crazy, but she trusted him at his word on that.

"All right," she said, "let me have a look at your leg."

"Like I said, I'll live." She heard his pants hit the floor with a soft rasp. "I don't think it's as bad as you might have thought."

Tess swiveled her head to regard him over her shoulder, prepared for the sight of a ghastly open wound. But he was right, it wasn't that bad after all. Beneath the edge of the towel that draped his groin and upper thigh, the laceration was a clean slice but not that deep at all. Not even half an inch down into the flesh of his thigh. The bleeding was tapering off, even as she looked at him.

"Well, that's… a relief," she said, puzzled but glad that her concern had been overblown. She shrugged. "Okay. I guess we'll just clean it up, then, and bandage it, and you should be good as new."

Turning back to the sink, Tess wet a cloth under the faucet and squeezed a drop of antiseptic onto the thick terry weave. She was working up the lather when she heard Dante get up and come toward her. In half a stride he was at her back, taking out the clip that held her hair in its messy knot and letting the waves tumble down around her.

"That's better," he said softly, slowly, something darkly sensual in his voice. "Your beautiful bare neck was driving me to distraction. As it is, all I can think of is how much I want to put my mouth on you."

Tess's breath caught in her throat, and for a second she wasn't sure if she should stay rigidly still and hope he'd simply move away or if she should turn to face whatever insanity was going to pass between them again tonight.

She inched herself around in the small space between the sink and Dante's towel-clad body. This close, the tattoos on his bare chest were mesmerizing, a flourish of geometric symbols and swirling arcs rendered in a range of hues from deep russet to gold and green to peacock blue.

"Do you like them?" he murmured, watching her gaze follow the strange, interlocking patterns and beautiful colors.

"I've never seen anything like them. I think they're stunning, Dante. Are they tribal-inspired?"

He gave a vague shrug. "More of a family tradition. My father was similarly marked; so was his father before him, and all the other males of our line."

Wow. If the men of Dante's family looked anything like him, they must have wreaked holy havoc on the hearts of women everywhere. Recalling just how far down the tattoos went below the hem of the towel at Dante's hips made Tess's face flush with heat.

He merely smiled, a knowing curve of his lips.

Tess closed her eyes and worked to steady her breath, then looked to him once more as she brought the warm, wet cloth between them and dabbed at the smudged stains on his cheeks and brow. He had some drying blood on his hands too, so she swabbed it away, holding his upturned palm in her own. His fingers were large and long, dwarfing hers when he curled them around her hand.

"I like feeling you touch me, Tess. I've been wanting your hands on me since the first time I saw you."

She looked up to meet his eyes, her mind flooding with memories of the night before. The whiskey-gold color of his gaze drew her in, telling her that it was going to happen again–the two of them naked, bodies joined. She was getting the definite idea that it was always going to be hot and heavy like this with him. Her core tightened at the thought, a knot of intense hunger that bloomed out from the center of her, loosening her limbs.

"Let me just… see your leg now… "

She reached down to where the edges of the towel split at his right hip and followed the muscular length of his thigh. The wound had stopped bleeding, so she gently cleansed the area, far too aware of the masculine beauty of his lines, the power in his firm legs, the soft, tawny skin that stretched over the slight jut of his pelvic bone. As she brought her cloth back up, she felt his sex rouse beneath the towel, the rigid shaft brushing her wrist as she withdrew.

Tess swallowed on a dry throat. "I'll get the bandages now."

She dropped the washcloth in the sink and pivoted to reach for the roll of white gauze, but Dante caught her hand. He held it in his warm grasp, smoothing his thumb over her skin as if he were silently asking her permission. When she didn't pull away, only turned back to face him, his eyes were glittering, the center of them seeming to glow within the bourbon-dark rim of color that surrounded his pupils.

"I should stay away from you," he said, his voice low and thick. "I should, but I can't."

He captured the back of her neck in his large palm and brought her toward him, the few inches between them vanishing as their bodies pressed together. He lowered his mouth, and Tess's breath left her on a long sigh as his lips brushed hers in a slow, sweet kiss. One of his hands went around to the small of her back, sliding up under her loose knit shirt. His touch was hot, fingertips leaving trails of electricity all along her spine as he caressed her bare skin.

Dante's kiss deepened, his tongue thrusting into her mouth. Tess opened to him, moaning as the hard length of his erection prodded at her belly. Desire shot through her, wet and molten. His hand came around her rib cage, drawing slowly beneath the weight of her breast, then up over the tight nipple. A spray of goose bumps rose on her limbs, making her shiver with the need for more of his touch. For a long while there was only the sound of their combined breathing, the tender strokes of their hands on each other's bodies.

She was panting when he broke their kiss, boneless as he lifted her off the tiled floor and sat her down on the vanity's countertop. He pulled off her clingy white shirt and dropped it beside them. Her sweatpants went next. Dante eased her out of them, leaving her sitting on the cabinet in just her panties. Her legs were parted, the wide V filled with Dante's perfect, masculine body, the terry cloth that covered his jutting arousal rasping softly against her inner thighs.

"Look what you have done to me," he said, running his hand along her forearm as he guided her fingers beneath the towel to that enormous length of hard flesh that tented it.

Tess couldn't feign shyness as she touched him. She stroked his thick shaft and the weighted sac beneath, drawing up and down his velvety skin, taking her sweet time, her fingers hardly able to circle his width. As she palmed the smooth head of his sex, she leaned forward to kiss his ridged belly, reveling in all the softness that sheathed so much strength.

Dante groaned as she played her tongue along the intricate lines of his tattoos, the rumble of his deep voice vibrating against her lips. His arms caged her on either side, the huge muscles bulging as he gripped the edges of the vanity and let her have her way with him. His head was dropped down on his broad chest, his eyes hooded but burning with intensity when Tess ventured a glance up at him. She smiled, then leaned back in to swirl her tongue around the rim of his navel, unable to resist the urge to nip at his smooth skin.

He hissed a curse through his teeth as she grazed him. "Ah, God–yes. Do it harder," he growled. "I want to feel your little bite, Tess."

She didn't know what came over her, but she did what he asked, bringing her teeth together as she sucked some of his flesh into her mouth. She didn't break his skin, but the sharp bite seemed to travel through Dante's body like a current. He gave a sharp thrust of his hips, dislodging the towel, which had long since become an annoyance to her too. He shuddered as she smoothed her tongue over the spot she 'd just abused.

"Did I hurt you?"

"No. Don't stop." He curled himself over her and dropped a kiss on her bare shoulder. His muscles were clenched taut, his arousal surging even fuller in her hand. "God, Tess. You are such a surprise to me. Please, don't stop." She didn't want to stop. It made absolutely no sense to her why she should feel such a strong connection to this man–such a fierce need–but then, when it came to Dante, there was a lot she didn't understand. She'd only just met him and yet he'd been with her for so long, as if fate had paired them up ages ago, then brought them together now.

Whatever it was, Tess had no desire to question.

She nipped her way down his belly, to his narrow hip, then bent forward and took the head of his sex into her mouth. She sucked him deep, letting her teeth gently graze his shaft as she withdrew. He moaned sharply, braced before her as rigid as a column of steel. She felt Dante's pulse kick as she took him into her mouth again, felt the throb of his heartbeat traveling along the veined length.

She could feel the rush of his blood coursing through his body, scarlet-dark and ferocious, and for one startling, utterly insane moment, she wanted to know what all that power would taste like against her tongue.

The moonlit river was an undulating ribbon of black outside the tinted passenger window of the SUV. And it was quiet, no other cars on the empty, weed-choked stretch of concrete that used to be the parking lot for an old paper mill, condemned about twenty years ago. Ben Sullivan was guessing it was a decent place for a murder, and the stony silence of the intense, heavily armed man at the wheel of the vehicle wasn't giving him a lot of reason to hope otherwise.

As the SUV rolled to a stop, Ben prepared himself for a fight, wishing to hell he'd found a way to get his hands back on that .45 he'd lost at his apartment. Not that he expected he'd have much of a chance with this guy, even if he was armed. Unlike his dark-haired partner, who broadcasted menace in his voice and his actions, this one held his cards close to his chest. He was icy calm, but Ben could read the seething rage that ran underneath the surface of that polished Mr. Cool demeanor, and it terrified him.

"What's going on? Why'd we stop here? Are we waiting for someone?" The questions poured out of him, but he was too anxious to care if he sounded like a chicken-shit. "Your partner back there said he wanted you to take me to `the compound,' didn't he?"

No reply.

"Well, wherever that is," Ben said, looking around at the desolate lot, "I don't suppose this is the place."

With the vehicle idling in park, the driver blew out a long breath of air and turned a cold look on him. The guy's pale blue eyes were killer sharp, filled with barely restrained fury. "You and I are going to have a private talk."

"Am I going to survive it?"

He didn't answer, just stuck his hand into an inside pocket of his coat and pulled out a folded piece of paper. A photograph, Ben realized, catching the gloss in the dashboard light.

"Have you ever seen this inpidual?"

Ben glanced at the image of a clean-cut young man with tousled light brown hair and a broad, friendly smile. He wore a Harvard sweatshirt and was giving the photographer the thumbs-up sign with one hand, while the other held out a sheet of formal stationery emblazoned with the university's symbol on the letterhead.

"Well? Is he familiar to you?"

The question was a low snarl of sound, and while Ben was sure he'd seen the kid around, even dealt Crimson to him a few times this week alone, he didn't know whether or not that answer would be the one to save him or damn him right now. He slowly shook his head, lifting his shoulder in a noncommittal shrug.

Suddenly he was choking, his face caught in a bruising grip that crushed him so tightly he thought his jawbone would crack. God, the guy had struck like a viper–faster than that, because Ben hadn't even seen his hand move in the small space of the front seat.

"Have a closer look," Mr. Cool demanded, pushing the photo up into Ben's face.

"O-okay," Ben sputtered, tasting blood in his mouth as his teeth cut into the insides of his cheeks. " Yeah, okay! Shit!"

The pressure eased and he coughed, rubbing his screaming jaw.

"Have you seen him?"

"Yeah, I've seen him. His name's Cameron or something."

"Camden," he corrected, voice tight and wooden. "When did you last see him?"

Ben shook his head, trying to remember. "Not too long ago. This week. He was hanging with some ravers at a tech?trance club in the North End. La Notte, I think it was."

"Did you sell to him?" The words came out slowly, thick sounds that seemed obstructed by something in his mouth.

Ben flicked a wary glance across the seats. In the dim glow of the dash, the guy's eyes were throwing off a funky sheen, like his pupils were disappearing, stretching thin in the center of all that glacial blue. A chill entered Ben's bones, instinct kicking into high alert.

Something was off here, way off.

"Did you give him Crimson, you goddamn piece of shit?"

Ben swallowed hard. Gave a wobbly nod of his head. "Yeah. The dude might have bought from me a couple of times."

He heard a vicious growl, saw a flash of sharp white teeth in the dark in the split second before the back of his head smashed against the passenger-side window and the guy launched on top of him in an explosion of hellish fury.

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