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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Twenty-three)

Chase entered his Darkhaven residence from around the back, thinking it best not to alarm the whole house by coming in through the front, seething like an animal and covered in blood. Elise was up; he could hear her soft voice in the first-floor living room, where she and some of the community's other Breedmate females had gathered.

And he could smell her too. His senses were heightened from the rage still boiling through him–the violence he'd delivered–and the feminine scent of the woman he desired more than any other was like a drug shot directly into his vein.

With a feral snarl, Chase turned in the opposite direction of his sister-in-law and headed for his private quarters. He kicked the door shut as he entered, his hands working furiously at the zipper of his jacket, which was ruined with the human's spilled blood. He tore the jacket off and threw it to the floor, then pulled off his shirt and discarded it too.

He was a mess, from the bleeding scrapes and contusions on his hands after beating Ben Sullivan nearly to a pulp to the fevered, savage thirst that made him want to destroy something, even now, some time after he'd left the scene of his uncontrollable fury. It had been a stupid thing to do, attacking the Crimson dealer like he had, but the need to enact some measure of vengeance had been overwhelming.

Chase had given in to savage impulse, something he rarely did. Hell, had he ever? He always prided himself on his rigid, righteous ideals. His refusal to let emotion overrule his logic.

Now, in one careless moment, he'd fucked everything up.

Although he hadn't killed the Crimson dealer, he had leaped on him with full intent for murder. He'd bared his fangs and sunk them into the human's throat, not caring that in doing so he was exposing himself as a vampire. He had attacked savagely, but in the end he had brought his fury to heel and let the human go. Maybe he should have scrubbed his memory to protect the Breed from exposure, but Chase wanted Ben Sullivan to remember exactly what was waiting for him if he reneged on their agreement.

The entire situation was an outright betrayal of the trust he'd been granted by Dante and the rest of the warriors, but Chase couldn't see where he had much choice. He needed Ben Sullivan on the streets, not tucked away under the protective custody of the Order. Repugnant as the idea was, he needed the dealer's cooperation in helping him find Camden. It was a bargain he'd made the human scum swear upon over his own spilling blood. Sullivan was no idiot, and after the taste of vampiric fury he'd gotten tonight, he'd begged to help Chase in whatever way he could.

Chase understood that he was solo on his mission now. There would be some hell to pay with Dante and the others, but so be it. He was too far into this personal crusade to care about his own consequences. He'd already forfeited his position at the Agency, the career he'd worked so hard to make. Tonight he'd given up some of his honor. He'd give up anything to see this mission through.

Flicking on the light in his bathroom, Chase caught a sudden, stark glimpse of his own reflection. He was blood-spattered and sweating, his eyes glowing like amber coals, the pupils winnowed down to slits by residual anger and his body's thirst to feed. The dermaglyphs on his bare chest and shoulders pulsed in hues of pale scarlet and faded gold, indications of his general need for blood. The small taste he'd consumed when he bit Ben Sullivan's throat hadn't helped; the bitter copper tang lingering in his mouth only made him long to erase it with something sweeter.

Something delicate, like heather and roses–the blood scent he could trace coming closer to his apartments even as he stood there, glaring at the feral creature who stared back at him in the mirror.

The hesitant knock on the door outside went through his body like cannon fire.

"Sterling? Have you returned?"

He didn't answer. Couldn't, in fact. His tongue was cleaved to the roof of his mouth, his jaw ground tight behind the pained sneer of his pale, curled-back lips. He had to clamp down hard on his mind to keep himself from throwing the door open with the force of his will.

If he let her in now, unbalanced as he currently was, nothing would stop him from pulling her into his arms and slaking the twin hungers that were raging within him. He would be at her vein in a second; little more than that and he would be pushing inside her, damning himself completely.

Proving to himself just how far down he could sink in the course of one night.

Instead, he marshaled his mental strength and used it to cut the lights in the bathroom, plunging the space into a more comfortable darkness as he waited the long eternity that seemed to pass in those moments of answering silence. His eyes burned like embers. His fangs were ripping farther out of his gums, echoing the swelling ache of his arousal.

"Sterling… are you home?" she called again, and his ears were so attuned to her presence that he could detect her little sigh across the span of his apartments and through the solid panel of the door. He knew her well enough that he could picture the tiny frown that was certain to be creasing her forehead as she listened for him, then, finally, decided he wasn't there after all.

Chase stood stock-still, silent, waiting to hear her footsteps retreat softly down the hallway. Only when she was gone, the scent of her fading with her departure, did he release his pent-up breath. It leaked out of his lungs on a deep, miserable howl, vibrating the darkened mirror in front of him. Chase let it go, focusing his frustration–his damnable torment–on that rattling sheet of polished glass until it shattered off the wall into a thousand razor-edged shards.

Dante stroked his fingers over the soft skin of Tess's bare shoulder as she slept. He lay in bed next to her, spooning the back of her naked body against the front of his and simply listening to her breathe. Around them, the room was quiet and dark, as peaceful as the wake of a passed storm.

The persistent calm was strange, the sense of comfort and contentment something entirely unfamiliar to him.

Unfamiliar, but… nice.

Dante's body stirred with interest as he held Tess in his arms, but he had no intention of disturbing her sleep. They'd made love tenderly after he brought her to bed, at a pace he'd let her set and control, letting her take whatever she needed from him. But now, even though his body was awake with arousal, all he wanted to do was comfort her. To simply be with her for as long as the night could last.

A shocking revelation for a male unaccustomed to denying himself any pleasure or desire.

But then, as far as this evening was going, shocking revelations were practically a given.

It was not unusual for a Breedmate to have at least one extraordinary or extrasensory ability–a gift that also typically passed down to her Breed offspring. Whatever the genetic anomaly was that made the rare human's womb capable of accepting a vampire's seed and her aging process halt with the regular ingestion of his blood, it also made her something more than her basic Homo sapiens sisters.

For Dante's mother, the talent was a terrible precognition. For Gideon's mate, Savannah, it was psychometry, the talent to read the history of an object–more specifically, she could also read the history of the object's owner. Gabrielle, the Breedmate who'd only recently come into the Order's fold as Lucan's woman, had an intuitive vision that drew her to vampire lairs and a strong mind that made her all but impervious to thought control, even by the most powerful of Dante's kind.

For Tess, it was the amazing ability to heal a living creature with her touch. And the fact that she had been able to heal Dante's leg wound meant that her restorative talents extended to those of the Breed as well. She would be such an asset to the race. God, when he thought of all the good she could bring–

Dante clipped the idea before it could take shape in his head. What happened here didn't change the fact that he was living on borrowed time or that his duty was, first and foremost, to the Breed. He wanted Tess shielded from the pain of her past, but it seemed unfair to ask her to leave the life she was building for herself. Even more unfair was what he'd done by taking her blood that very first night, linking them inextricably to each other.

Yet, as he lay there beside her, caressing her skin, breathing in the cinnamon-sweet scent of her, Dante wanted nothing more than to scoop Tess up and carry her away with him, back to the compound, where he knew she would be safe from all the evil that might touch her topside.

Evil like the stepfather who'd given her so much anguish. Tess worried that killing the bastard had made her as bad as him, but Dante had only respect for what she'd done. She'd slain a monster, sparing herself and who knew how many other children from his abuse.

To Dante, Tess had proven herself a warrior at that tender age, and the ancient part of him that still subscribed to things like honor and justice wanted to shout to the entire sleeping city below that this was his woman.

Mine, he thought fiercely, selfishly.

As he leaned in and pressed a kiss to her delicate shoulder blade, the phone in her kitchen began to ring. He blasted the device with a sharp mental command, silencing the ring before it could wake her completely. She roused, moaning a little as she murmured his name.

"I'm here," he said quietly. "Sleep, angel. I'm still here."

As she drifted off again, nestling tighter against him, Dante wondered how long he had before dawn would drive him away. Not long enough, he thought, astonished that he could feel that way and knowing that he couldn't blame his feelings on the inconvenience of the blood bond he had unintentionally forced on them both.

No, what he was beginning to feel for Tess went a lot deeper than that. It went all the way to his heart.

"God damn it, Tess. Pick up!"

Ben Sullivan's voice was shrill, quivering, his entire body shaking uncontrollably from trauma and a fear so intense he thought he might pass out from it.

"Fuck! Come on–answer."

He stood in a nasty pay phone booth in one of the worst areas of town, the chewed-up, crusted-over receiver gripped in his bloody fingers. His free hand was clamped at the side of his neck, sticky from the horrific bite wound inflicted there. His face was swollen from the savage pounding he'd taken, the back of his head screaming with pain from a goose-egg-size lump he'd gotten from the window of the SUV.

He couldn't believe he wasn't dead. He had thought for sure he would be killed, based on the fury with which he'd been attacked. He'd been stunned when the guy–Jesus, was he even human?– ordered him to get out of the vehicle. He'd thrust the photograph of the kid he was looking for into Ben's hand and let him know that if this Cameron, Camden, whatever, turned up dead, Ben would be held solely responsible.

Now Ben had been enlisted to help find him, to make sure the kid got home in one piece. Ben's life depended on it, and as much as he wanted to hightail it out of town and forget he ever heard the word Crimson, he knew the lunatic who attacked him tonight would find him. The guy had promised he would, and Ben wasn't about to test his rage in a second round.

"Damn it," he grumbled, as the call to Tess's apartment went into voice mail.

As bad off as he was now–as deep in the shit as he'd landed tonight–he felt a moral obligation to warn Tess about the guy she'd been messing around with lately. If his buddy was a psychotic freak of nature, Ben was betting that the other one was just as dangerous.

God, Tess.

When the voice-mail greeting left off with a beep, Ben rushed through the night's events, from the surprise ambush at his place by the two thugs to the attack on him a short while ago. He blurted out that he'd seen her with one of the guys the other night and that he worried she was risking her life if she continued to see him.

He could hear the words spilling out of him in a breathless stream, his voice pitched higher than normal, fear edging on hysteria. By the time he'd gotten it all out and slammed the phone back down onto the chipped cradle, he could hardly breathe. He leaned back against a graffiti-tagged panel of the phone booth and bent over, closing his eyes as he tried to calm his rattled system.

A barrage of feelings came at him in a giant swell: panic, guilt, helplessness, bone-deep terror. He wanted to take it all back–the past several months, everything that had happened, everything he'd done. If only he could go back and erase things, make them right. Would Tess be with him, then? He didn't know. And it didn't fucking matter, because he couldn't take any of it back.

The most he could hope to do now was survive.

Ben dragged in a deep breath and forced himself to stand. He pushed out of the phone booth and started walking down the darkened street, looking like holy hell. A homeless person recoiled from him as he cut across the road and hobbled toward the main drag. As he walked, he dug out the picture of the kid he was supposed to look for.

Glancing down at the snapshot, trying to focus on the bloodstained image, Ben didn't hear the approaching car until it was nearly on top of him. Brakes screeched and the vehicle was thrown into an abrupt stop. The doors opened in tandem, a trio of unfamiliar bouncer types pouring out.

"Going somewhere, Mr. Sullivan?"

Ben jolted into flight mode, but he didn't even get two steps on the pavement before he was seized by all of his limbs. He watched the photograph land on the wet asphalt, a large boot trampling it as the men started carrying him back to the waiting car.

"So glad we finally located you," said a voice that sounded human but somehow wasn't. "When you failed to show up at your meeting tonight, the Master became very concerned. He'll be pleased to hear that you are on your way now."

Ben struggled against his captors, but it was no use. They stuffed him into the trunk and slammed the lid, plunging him into darkness.

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