Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Thirteen)

"Jonas Redmond has gone missing."

At the sound of Elise's voice, Chase turned off his computer monitor and looked up. Discreetly, without letting her see his movements, he slid the utility knife he'd recovered several hours ago while on patrol with Dante into one of his desk drawers.

"He went out last night with a couple of friends, but he didn't return with them."

Elise stood in the open doorway of his study, a vision of beauty, even in the shapeless white mourning clothes that had been a constant about her for the past five years. The bell-sleeved tunic and long skirt fluttered around her petite figure, the only color being the red silk widow's sash that was tied loosely at her hips.

Never assuming, always rigidly proper, she wouldn't enter Chase's domain until he invited her in. He rose from his desk chair and held his hand out to her in welcome. "Please," he said, unable to take his eyes off her as she glided over the threshold and stood against the far wall.

"They say he took some kind of drug while they were at a nightclub, and he became crazed," she said softly. "He tried to attack someone. His friends got frightened and ran off. They lost him in the panic, and they don't know what happened to him. The whole day has passed without any word from him at all."

Chase didn't reply. Elise wouldn't want to know the truth of it, and he would be the last person to subject her to the ugly details of his own firsthand knowledge of the young vampire's agonizing final moments of life.

"Jonas is one of Camden's best friends, you know."

"Yes," Chase said quietly. "I know."

Elise's smooth brow pinched, then she glanced away from him, fidgeting with her wedding band. "Do you think it's possible that they might have found each other out there? Maybe Cam and Jonas are hiding together somewhere. They must be so scared, needing to find shelter from the sun. At least it will be dark again soon, just a few more hours. Maybe tonight there will be good news."

Chase didn't realize he was moving until he saw that he was on the other side of his desk, only a few paces away from the spot where Elise stood. "I will find Camden. I promised you I would. You have my vow, Elise: I won't rest until he is safe at home with you again."

Her head bobbed weakly. "I know you're doing all that you can. But you are sacrificing so much to search for Cam. I know how much you enjoyed your work with the Agency. Now you're getting involved with those dangerous thugs of the Order… "

"You don't worry about any of that," he told her gently. "My decisions are my own to make. I know what I'm doing–and why."

When she looked up at him now, she smiled, a rare gift that he devoured greedily and held close. " Sterling, I understand that you and my husband had your differences. Quentin could be… inflexible at times. I know that he pushed you a great deal at the Agency. But he respected you more than he did anyone else. He always said you were the best, the one with the most potential to be something great. He cared for you, even if he often had trouble expressing that to you." She drew in a breath, then exhaled it on a rushing sigh. "He would be so grateful for what you are doing for us, Sterling. As I am."

Looking into her warm lavender eyes, Chase pictured himself bringing Elise's son home like a prize he' d won just for her pleasure. There would be joyful tears and emotional embraces. He could almost feel her arms thrown around him in cathartic relief, her moist eyes anointing him as her personal champion. Her savior.

He lived for that chance now.

He craved it with a ferocity that startled him.

"I just want you to be happy," he said, daring to move closer to her.

In a shameful instant, he imagined an alternate reality, where Elise belonged to him, her widow's garb flung away along with her memory of the strong, honorable mate she had loved so deeply and lost. In Chase's private dream, Elise's small body would be grown full and ripe with his child. He would give her a son to love and hold close. He would give her the world.

"You deserve to be happy, Elise."

She made a small noise in the back of her throat, as though he had embarrassed her. "It's very sweet of you to care. I don't know what I would do without you, especially now."

She stepped toward him and put her hands on his shoulders, just the lightest touch, but enough to send a flood of heat racing through him. He braced himself, hardly breathing as she rose up on her toes and pressed her lips to the corner of his mouth. The kiss was brief, heartbreakingly chaste.

"Thank you, Sterling. I couldn't have asked for a more devoted brother-in-law."

Tess perused the pastry case of a North End coffee shop, finally deciding on a decadent seven-layer brownie drizzled in caramel sauce. She normally didn't indulge and probably had no right to now, given her tight finances, but after a long day at work–a day that came on the heels of a long, nearly sleepless night–she was going to enjoy her brownie and cappuccino without a moment of guilt. Well, maybe just a small moment of guilt, which would be forgotten the instant all that sticky sweet goodness touched her tongue.

"I'll pay for that," said a deep male voice from beside her.

Tess drew up sharply. She knew that low, beautifully accented voice, even though she'd heard it only once before.

"Dante," she said, turning around to face him. "Hi."

"Hi." He smiled, and Tess's heart did a crazy flutter in her chest. "I'd like to pay for your, er… God, don't tell me that's your dinner?"

She laughed and shook her head. "I had a late lunch at work. And you don't have to pay–"

"I insist." He handed the barista a twenty and didn't accept the change. He didn't seem to notice the pretty cashier's coy look either, all of his focus rooted on Tess. The intensity of his gorgeous eyes, his entire presence, seemed to suck some of the air out of the too-warm room.

"Thank you," she said, taking her bagged brownie and the paper cup away from the counter. "Aren't you having anything?" "I don't do sugar or caffeine. They're not my thing."

"They're not? It just so happens they're two of my favorite vices."

Dante made a soft sound in his throat, almost a purr. "What are your others?"

"Working, mostly," she said quickly, feeling her face flush as she turned to grab a few napkins from the dispenser at the end of the counter. A peculiar heat also traveled along her neck, tingling like a mild electrical charge. She felt it down to her marrow, in every surging vein. She was eager to change the subject, far too aware of the heat he was putting off as he trailed her casually toward the coffee-shop door. "This is a surprise, seeing you here, Dante. Do you live nearby?"

"Not far. And you?"

"Just a couple of blocks away," she said, walking with him outside into the cool night air. Now that she was standing next to him again, she couldn't stop thinking about their strange, sexually charged encounter at the museum exhibit. She'd been thinking about those incredible few moments pretty much constantly ever since, wondering if he might have been just a figment of her imagination–some dark kind of fantasy. Yet here he was, flesh and bone. So real that she could touch him. It shocked her how much she wanted to do just that.

It unnerved her, made her twitchy and anxious. Made her want to get away before the urge became something even stronger.

"Well," she said, as she tipped her steaming cappuccino cup in his direction. "Thanks again for the sugar and caffeine buzz. Good night."

As she turned to walk up the sidewalk, Dante reached out and touched her arm. His mouth curved into an amused, if suspicious, smile. "You're always running away from me, Tess."

Was she? And really, why the hell shouldn't she? She hardly knew him, and what she did know of him seemed to send all of her senses into overdrive. "I am not trying to run away from you–"

"Then let me give you a ride home."

He pulled a small key ring out of his coat pocket, and a black Porsche parked at the curb gave a chirp, its lights flashing once in response. Nice car, she thought, not really surprised to find him driving something sleek, fast, and expensive.

"Thanks, but… that's okay, really. It's such a nice night, I was actually going to walk for a while."

"May I join you?"

If he'd insisted in that confident, dominating way of his, Tess would have turned him down flat. But he was asking politely, as if he understood just how far she could be pushed. And although Tess had been craving alone time, tonight of all nights, when she thought about making excuses to leave him, the words simply wouldn't come. "Um, sure. I guess so. If you want to."

"I'd like nothing more."

They began a slow stroll up the sidewalk, just another couple on a street full of tourists and residents enjoying the quaint neighborhood of the North End. For a long time, neither one of them spoke. Tess sipped her cappuccino and Dante surveyed the area with a hawkish intensity that made her feel both anxious and protected. She didn't see danger in any of the faces they passed, but Dante had a fierce vigilance about him that said he was ready for any situation.

"You never did tell me the other night what you do for a living. Are you a cop or something?"

He glanced over at her as they walked, his expression serious. "I'm a warrior."

"Warrior," she said, skeptical of the antiquated term. "What exactly does that mean–military? Special Forces? Vigilante?"

"In a sense, I'm all of those things. But I'm one of the good guys, Tess, I promise you. My brethren and I do whatever is necessary to maintain order and make sure that the weak and innocent are not preyed upon by the strong or corrupt."

She didn't laugh, even though she wasn't at all certain he was serious. The way he described himself called to mind ancient ideals of justice and nobility, as though he subscribed to some kind of knightly code of honor. "Well, I can't say I've ever seen that job description on a r?sum? before. As for me, I'm just your basic private-practice veterinarian."

"What about your boyfriend? What does he do for a living?"

"Ex," she admitted quietly. "Ben and I have been broken up for a while now."

Dante paused to look at her, something dark flashing across his features. "You lied to me?"

"No, I said I was at the reception with Ben. You assumed he was my boyfriend."

"And you let me believe it. Why?"

Tess shrugged, unsure. "Maybe I didn't trust you with the truth."

"But you do now?"

"I don't know. I don't trust very easily."

"Neither do I," he said, watching her more closly than ever now. They resumed walking. "Tell me. How did you become involved with this… Ben?"

"We met a couple of years ago, through my practice. He's been a good friend to me."

Dante grunted but said nothing more. Ahead of them less than a block was the Charles River, one of Tess's favorite places to walk. She led the way across the street and onto one of the paved trails that meandered along the riverfront.

"You don't really believe that," Dante said when they neared the dark, rippling water of the Charles. " You say he's a good friend, but you're not being honest. Not with me, and not with yourself either."

Tess frowned. "How could you possibly know what I think? You don't know anything about me."

"Tell me I'm wrong."

She started to say as much, but his unwavering gaze stripped her bare. He did know. God, how was it possible that she could feel so connected to him? How could he read her so clearly? She'd felt this same awareness–this instant, peculiar bond with him–at the museum.

"Last night, at the exhibit," she said, her voice quiet in the cool darkness, "you kissed me." "Yes."

"Then you all but vanished without a word."

"I had to leave. If I hadn't, I might not have stopped at just kissing you."

"In the middle of a crowded ballroom?" He didn't say anything to deny it. And the slight, inviting curve of his lips sent arrows of fire licking through her veins. Tess shook her head. "I'm not even sure why I let you do that to me."

"Do you wish I hadn't?"

"It doesn't matter if I wished it or not."

She picked up her pace, moving ahead of him on the walking path.

"You're running away again, Tess."

"I am not!" She surprised herself by the frightened tone of her voice. And she was running, her feet trying to carry her as far away from him as possible, even though everything else within her was drawn to him like a magnetic field. She forced herself to stop. To remain still as Dante came up next to her and turned her to face him.

"We're all running away from something, Tess."

She couldn't help scoffing a little. "Even you?"

"Yeah. Even me." He stared out at the river, then gave a nod as his gaze came back to her. "You want to know the God's honest truth? I've been running all my life–longer than you could know."

She found it hard to believe. Granted, she knew very little about him, but if she'd been asked to describe him in one word, it likely would have been fearless. Tess couldn't imagine what could make this immensely confident man doubt himself for a second. "From what, Dante?"

"Death." He was quiet for a moment, reflective. "Sometimes I think if I just keep moving, if I don't allow myself to become anchored by hope or anything else that might tempt me to miss a step… " He exhaled a curse into the darkness. "I don't know. I'm not sure it's possible to cheat fate, no matter how fast or how far we run."

Tess thought about her own life, the damning past that had been haunting her for so long. She had tried to outrun it, but it was always there. Always shadowing every decision she made, reminding her of the curse that would never permit her to truly live. Even now–more and more lately–she wondered if it might be time to move on, start over.

"What do you think, Tess? What is it you run from?"

She didn't answer, torn between the need to protect her secrets and her longing to share them with someone who might not judge her, who might understand what had brought her to this place in her life, if not forgive her for it.

"It's okay," Dante said gently. "You don't have to tell me now. Come on, let's find a bench so you can sit and enjoy your sugar and caffeine. Never let it be said that I'd deny a woman any of her favorite vices." Dante watched Tess eat the thick, caramel-laced brownie, feeling her pleasure radiate across the small space that separated them on the river-walk bench. She'd offered him a bite, and although his kind could not consume crude human food in anything more than a mouthful, he accepted a small taste of the sticky chocolate confection if only to share in Tess's unabashed enjoyment. He swallowed the heavy, pretty much revolting bit of pasty sweetness with a tight smile.

"Good, huh?" Tess licked her chocolate-coated fingers, slipping one after the other into her mouth and sucking them clean.

"Delicious," Dante said, watching her with his own brand of hunger.

"You can have some more if you want it."

"No." He drew back, shaking his head. "No, it's all yours. Please. Enjoy it."

She finished it off, then sipped the last of her coffee. As she got up to toss the empty bag and cup into a park trash bin, she was distracted by an elderly man who was walking a pair of small brown dogs along the riverfront. Tess said something to the old man, then dropped down into a crouch and let the dogs climb all over her.

Dante watched her laugh as the pair of them rolled and danced for her attention. That rigid guard he was so unsuccessful in breaching with her was gone now. For a few brief minutes, he saw what Tess was really like, without fear or mistrust.

She was glorious, and Dante felt an insane stab of envy for the two mutts who were benefiting from her uninhibited affection.

He strolled over and gave a nod of greeting to the old man as the gentleman and his dogs began to move on. Tess rose, still beaming, as she watched the beasts trot off with their master.

"You have quite a way with animals."

"They're my business," she said, as if she needed to explain her delight.

"You're good at it. That's obvious."

"I like helping animals. It makes me feel… useful, I guess."

"Maybe you could show me what you do sometime."

Tess cocked her head at him. "Do you have a pet?"

Dante should have said no, but he was still picturing her with those two ridiculous furballs and wishing that he could bring her some of that same joy. "I keep a dog. Like those."

"You do? What's its name?"

Dante cleared his throat, mentally casting about for what he might call a useless creature that depended on him for survival. "Harvard," he drawled, his lips curving with private humor. "I call it Harvard."

"Well, I'd love to meet him sometime, Dante." A chilly breeze kicked up, and Tess shivered, rubbing her arms. "It's getting kind of late. I should probably think about heading home." "Yeah, sure." Dante nodded, kicking himself for making up a pet, for God's sake, just because it might win him some favor with Tess. On the other hand, it might also be a convenient way to spend more time with her, figure out just what she knew about Crimson and her ex-boyfriend's dealing operation.

"I enjoyed our walk, Dante."

"So did I."

Tess glanced down at her feet, a wistful look on her face.

"What is it?"

"Nothing. I just… I wasn't expecting anything good to happen tonight. It's generally not one of my favorite days."

"Why not?"

She glanced up then, gave a vague shrug of her shoulder. "It's my birthday."

He chuckled. "That's a bad thing?"

"I don't usually celebrate it. Let's just say I had a rather dysfunctional upbringing. It's not a big deal, really."

Really, it was. Dante wouldn't have needed any part of a blood bond with Tess to understand that she was still hurting from a very old wound. He wanted to know everything about her pain and its source, his protective instincts firing up at the thought of Tess suffering any kind of unhappiness. But she was already moving away from him, inching toward the path that would lead them up to the street, back to her neighborhood. He reached for her hand, delaying her retreat. He wanted to pull her into his arms and hold her there.

"You should have reason to celebrate every day, Tess. Especially this one. I'm glad you let me spend some of it with you."

She smiled–truly smiled, her eyes glimmering in the soft glow of the park lamps, her luscious mouth spreading into a beautiful, soft arc. Dante couldn't resist his need to feel her close to him. He tightened his fingers around hers and gently brought her toward him.

He looked down into her beautiful face, half lost to desire for her. "No birthday is complete without a kiss."

Like a gate slamming down before him, Tess's expression fell. She froze, then stiffened, pulling away from him. "I don't like birthday kisses," she blurted out on a rush of breath. "I just… I think we should call it a night now, Dante."

"Tess, I'm sorry–"

"I have to go." She was already moving onto the path. Then she pivoted around and ran off at a quick jog, leaving him standing alone in the park to wonder what the hell had just happened.