Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Thirty-four)

Tess made her way into the city from the compound's property in a state of emotional numbness. Without her purse, coat, or cell phone, she had few options–not even a key to get into her apartment. Breathless, confused, utterly exhausted from everything that was happening to her, she headed for a corner pay phone, praying it wasn't out of order. She got a dial tone, hit 0, and waited for the operator to come on.

"Collect call, please," she panted into the receiver, then gave the operator the number of the animal clinic. The phone rang and rang. No answer.

As it went into voice mail, the operator disconnected, saying, "I'm sorry. There's no one there to accept charges."

"Wait," Tess said, worry niggling at her. "Will you try it again?" "One moment."

Tess waited anxiously as the phone began ringing again at the clinic. No answer.

"I'm sorry," the operator said again, disconnecting the call.

"I don't understand," Tess murmured, more to herself. "Can you tell me what time it is?"

"It's ten-thirteen A.M."

Nora wouldn't break for lunch until noon, and she never called in sick, so why wasn't she picking up the call? Something must be wrong.

"Would you like to try another number?"

"Yes, I would."

Tess gave the operator Nora's land line, then, when that call came up empty, she gave her Nora's cell. As each call rang unanswered, Tess's heart sank deeper in her chest. Everything felt wrong to her. Very wrong.

With dread pounding through her, Tess hung up the pay phone and began walking for the nearest subway station. She didn't have the dollar-twenty-five fare it would cost to ride to the North End, but a grandmotherly woman on the street took pity on her and gave her a handful of loose change.

The trip home seemed to take forever, each stranger's face on the train seeming to stare at her as if they knew she didn't belong there among them. As if they could sense that she had been changed somehow, no longer a part of the normal world. No longer a part of their human world.

And maybe she wasn't, Tess thought, reflecting on all that Dante had told her–everything she had seen and been a part of in the past several hours. The past several days, she corrected herself, thinking back on Halloween night, when she'd truly first seen Dante.

When he'd sunk his fangs into her neck and turned her normal world upside down.

But maybe she wasn't being totally fair. Tess couldn't remember a time when she'd really felt a part of anything normal. She had always been… different. Her unusual ability, even more than her troubled past, had always kept her separate from other people. She'd always felt like a misfit, an outsider, unable to trust anyone with her secrets.

Until Dante.

He had opened her eyes to so much. He'd made her feel, made her desire in ways she never had before. He'd made her hope for things she'd only dreamed of. He'd made her feel safe and understood. Worse than that, he had made her feel loved.

But that had all been based on lies. Now she had the truth–incredible as it was–and she would give just about anything to pretend it wasn't real.

Vampires and blood bonds. A mounting war between creatures who shouldn't exist outside the realm of the imagination, of nightmares.

It was all true, though.

It was real. As real as her feelings for Dante, which only made his deception cut deeper. She loved him, and she'd never been more terrified of anything in her life. She had fallen in love with a dangerous vigilante. A vampire.

The admission weighed her down as she stepped off the subway car and made her way up to street level in her North End neighborhood. The local shops were bustling with morning patrons, the outdoor market enjoying a steady flow of regular customers. Tess passed a knot of tourists who'd stopped to browse autumn melons and squash, weathering a chill that had little to do with the crisp fall air.

The closer she got to home, the deeper her sense of dread grew. One of the tenants came out as she reached the front stoop. Although she didn't know the old man by name, he smiled at her and held open the door for her to enter. Tess went inside and climbed the flight of stairs to her unit. Before she got within ten feet of the door, she realized that it had been broken into. The jamb was chewed up near the doorknob, as if it had been jimmied open and then closed to make it appear that nothing was out of place.

Tess froze, panic dousing her. She took a backward step, ready to turn around and bolt. Her spine connected with a solid mass, someone standing right behind her. A strong arm snaked around her waist, yanking her off balance, and a length of cold, sharp steel pressed meaningfully below her jaw.

"Morning, Doc. About fucking time you showed up."

"You can't be serious, Dante."

Although all of the warriors, including Chase, were gathered in the training facility watching him gear up for battle, Gideon was the first to challenge him.

"Do I look like I'm kidding?" Dante took a pistol out of one of the gun cabinets and grabbed a handful of rounds. "I've never been more serious in my life."

"Jesus Christ, D. In case you hadn't noticed, it's just after ten o'clock in the morning. That means full-on daylight."

"I know what it means."

Gideon exhaled a low curse. "You're going to fry, my man."

"Not if I can help it."

Having been around since the eighteenth century, Dante was beyond old by human standards, but as a Breed vampire, he was fairly average, his lineage being several generations distant from the Ancients and their hypersensitive alien skin. He couldn't stay topside for very long in the daytime, but he could take a small hit of UV rays and live to tell about it.

For Tess, he would be willing to walk into the core of the sun itself if he thought it might save her from the death he knew was waiting for her.

"Listen to me," Gideon said, putting his hand on Dante's arm to get his attention. "You may not be as vulnerable to the light as a Gen One, but you're still Breed. You spend more than thirty minutes in direct sunlight and you're toast."

"It's not like I'm gonna be sightseeing up there," he said, refusing to be swayed. He shrugged off his brethren's well-meaning caution and grabbed another weapon from the cabinet. "I know what I'm doing. I have to do this."

He had told the others about what he'd seen, the vision that was still tearing his heart in pieces. It killed him to think that he'd let Tess leave the compound without his protection, that he hadn't been able to stop her. That she might be in danger this very moment, while his vulnerable vampire genes forced him to hide belowground.

"What if the time you saw in your vision–eleven thirty-nine–is actually twenty-one minutes to midnight?" Gideon asked. "You can't be sure the event you saw was taking place during the morning hours. You might be putting yourself at risk for nothing–"

"And if I wait and it turns out I'm wrong? I can't take that chance." Dante shook his head. He'd tried to reach her by phone but got no answer at her apartment or the clinic. And the searing ache in his chest told him that she wasn't ignoring him purely by choice. Even without the benefit of his hellish precognition, he knew his Breedmate was in danger. "No goddamn way am I taking a chance on waiting around here ' til dark. Would you, Gideon? If Savannah needed you–I'm talking life-and-death needed you–would you even consider taking that kind of gamble? Would you, Lucan, if it were Gabrielle out there alone?"

Neither warrior denied it. There wasn't a blood-bonded male alive who wouldn't walk through a sea of fire for the woman he loved.

Lucan came toward him and held out his hand. "You honor her well."

Dante clasped his leader's strong Gen One hand–his friend's hand–and shook it firmly. "Thank you. But to be honest, I'm doing this as much for myself as I am for Tess. I need her in my life. She has become… everything to me."

Lucan nodded soberly. "Then go get her, my brother. We can celebrate your pairing when you and Tess return safely to the compound."

Dante held Lucan's regal gaze and slowly shook his head. "That is something I need to discuss with you. With all of you," he said, looking to the other warriors as well. "Assuming I survive at all, if I am able to save Tess, and if she will have me as her mate–I intend to relocate to the Darkhavens with her."

A long silence answered, his brethren staring at him in measured quiet.

Dante cleared his throat, knowing his decision must come as a shock to the warriors he'd fought alongside for more than a century. "She's been through enough already–even before I met her and dragged her into our world against her will. She deserves happiness. She deserves a hell of a lot more than I can ever hope to give her. I just want her to be safe now, far away from any danger."

"You would quit the Order for her?" Niko asked, the youngest only behind Dante, and a warrior who relished his duty perhaps even more than Dante had himself.

"I would quit breathing for her, if she asked it of me," he replied, surprising even himself with the depth of his devotion. He looked to Chase, who still owed him that second favor from last night. "What do you think? You got any pull left in the Boston Darkhaven to help me get a spot with the Agency?"

Chase smirked, lifting his shoulder in a casual shrug. "I might." He strode toward the weapons cabinet and took out a SIG Sauer. "But first things first, eh? We have to get your female back here in one piece so she can decide if she wants your sorry ass for a mate."

"We?" Dante said, watching the former Darkhaven agent suit up with the SIG and another semiauto. "Yeah, we. I'm going with you."

"What the–"

"Me too," Niko said, sauntering over and pulling out his own cache of weapons. The Russian grinned as he nodded toward Lucan, Gideon, and Tegan. "You're not going to leave me down here with these Gen One geezers, are you?"

"No one's coming with me. I wouldn't ask it–"

"You never have to," Niko said. "Like it or not, D, Chase and I are all you've got on this mission. You 're not doing this alone."

Dante swore, humbled and grateful for the show of support. "All right, then. Let's get moving."