It sounded ridiculous and she knew it. Ben had no claim over her, and even if they were still dating, she wouldn't let herself be dominated so much that she couldn't even talk with another man. That was all she was doing here with Dante, yet it felt intensely intimate. It felt illicit.
It felt dangerous, because despite everything she'd learned about protecting herself, about keeping her guard up, she was intrigued by this man, this stranger. She was attracted to him. More than attracted, she felt connected to him in some inexplicable way.
He smiled at her, then began a slow prowl around the Cornacchini display. "Sleeping Endymion," he said, reading the placard for the sculpture of the mythical shepherd boy. "What do you think he dreams about, Tess?"
"You don't know the story?" At the subtle shake of his head, Tess drifted toward him, almost unaware that she was moving. Unable to stop herself until she was standing right beside Dante, their arms brushing against each other as she looked into the Plexiglas with him. "Endymion dreams of Selene."
"The Greek moon goddess," Dante murmured next to her, his deep voice vibrating in her bones. "And are they lovers, Tess?"
Warmth stirred somewhere deep inside her just to hear him speak the word. He'd said it casually enough, yet Tess heard the question as if he'd meant it for her ears alone. The low, ticklish hum in the side of her neck intensified again, pulsing in time to the sudden rise of her heartbeat. She cleared her throat, feeling strange and unsettled, all her senses sharpening.
"Endymion was a handsome shepherd boy," she said finally, drawing on recollections of what she'd learned in a college mythology course. "Selene, as you said, was the goddess of the moon." "A human and an immortal," Dante remarked. She could feel his eyes on her now, that whiskey-colored gaze watching her. "Not the ideal combination, is it? Someone usually ends up dead."
Tess glanced at him. "This is one of the few times things worked out." She stared hard at the sculpture in order to avoid looking Dante's way again and confirming that he was still watching her, so close she could feel the heat of his body. She started talking again, needing to fill the space with something other than the awareness that was crackling around her. "Selene could only be with Endymion at night. She wanted to be with him forever, so she begged Zeus to grant her lover eternal life. The god agreed and put the shepherd into an endless sleep, where he waits each night for his beloved Selene to visit him."
"Happily ever after," Dante drawled, a note of cynicism in his voice. "Only in myths and fairy tales."
"You don't believe in love?"
"Do you, Tess?"
She glanced up at him, into a penetrating, probing gaze that felt as intimate as a caress. "I'd like to believe in it," she said, not sure why she was admitting this now, to him. The fact that she had said so to him confused her. Anxious suddenly, she strolled over to a neighboring case of Rodin pieces. "So, what's your interest in sculpture, Dante? Are you an artist or an enthusiast?"
"Oh." Dante kept pace with her, pausing beside her at the kiosk. Tess had dismissed him as out of place when she first saw him, but hearing him speak, seeing him up close, she had to admit that despite the fact that he looked like something out of a Wachowski brothers' action movie, there was an unmistakable level of sophistication about him. Beneath the leather and muscle, he had a worldly wiseness that intrigued her. Probably more than it should. "What then? Are you a patron of the museum? "
He gave a mild shake of his dark head.
"Working security for the exhibit?" she guessed.
It would certainly explain his lack of formal wear and the laser-sharp intensity that radiated around him. Maybe he was from one of those high-end insurance units that museums often hired to protect their collections while on public display.
"There was something here I wanted to see," he replied, his mesmerizing eyes unflinching on her. "That 's the only reason I came."
Something about the way he looked at her as he said it--the way he seemed to look right through her --gave her pulse a little jolt of electricity. She'd been hit on enough in the past to know when a guy was working some kind of angle, but this was different.
This man held her gaze with an intimacy that said she was already his. Not bravado or threat, but fact.
It didn't take much to imagine his large hands on her body, stroking her bare shoulders and arms. His sensual lips pressing against her mouth, his teeth gently grazing her neck.
Tess stared up at him, at the slight curve of his lips, which hadn't moved despite the fact that she just heard him speak. He moved toward her regardless of the milling crowd--none of whom seemed to notice them at all--and tenderly traced the line of her cheek with his thumb. Tess could find no will to move as he leaned down and brushed his mouth along the curve of her jaw.
Heat ignited in her core, a slow burn that melted even more of her reason.
I came here tonight for you.
She couldn't have heard correctly--if for nothing else, the very fact that he hadn't said a word. Yet Dante's voice was in her head, soothing her when she should be alarmed. Making her believe, when everything reasonable told her she was experiencing the impossible.
Close your eyes, Tess.
Her eyelids fell shut and then his mouth moved over hers in a soft, mesmerizing kiss. It wasn't happening, Tess thought desperately. She wasn't really letting this man kiss her, was she? In the middle of a crowded room?
But his lips were warm on hers, his teeth roughly grazing as he sucked her lower lip between them before drawing back. Just like that, the sudden, surprising kiss was over. And Tess wanted more.
God, how she wanted.
She couldn't open her eyes for the way her blood was thrumming, every part of her hot with need and an impossible yearning. Tess weaved a little on her feet, panting and breathless, astonished at what she'd just experienced. She felt a cool breeze skim her body, raising goose bumps in its wake.
"Sorry I took so long." Ben's voice jolted her eyes open as he strode up with drinks in hand. "This place is a zoo. The line at the bar took forever."
Startled, she glanced around for Dante. But he was gone. No sign of him at all--not anywhere near her or in the circulating crowd.
Ben handed her a glass of mineral water. Tess drank it quickly, half tempted to take his champagne and down that too.
"Oh, shit," Ben said, frowning as he looked at her. "There must be a chip in that glass, Tess. You've cut your lip."
She brought her hand up to her mouth as Ben scrambled to give her a small white napkin. Her fingertips came away wet, vivid scarlet.
"Jesus, I'm sorry about that. I should have looked--"
"I'm okay, really." She didn't quite know if that was true, but none of what she was feeling was Ben's fault. And she didn't have to check the glass to know there was no rough edge that might have caught on her lip. She must have bitten it herself when she and Dante... Well, she didn't even want to think about the strange encounter she'd had with him. "You know, I'm feeling a little tired, Ben. Would you mind if we called it a night?"
He shook his head. "No, that's fine. Whatever you want. Let's go get our coats."
As they headed out, Tess cast one last glance at the clear display case where Endymion slept on, waiting for darkness and his otherworldly lover to come for him.
What the hell was he thinking?
Dante paced the shadows outside the museum, strung out in a bad way. Mistake number one had been coming here in the first place, thinking he'd just take another look at the female who, by Breed law, belonged to him. Mistake number two? Seeing her on the arm of her human boyfriend, looking like a vivid jewel in her dark red dress and strappy little sandals, and thinking he wouldn't have the need to look closer.
From there, things had pretty much sped out of the poor-judgment category and straight into disaster. His sex was raging for release, his vision sharpened by the narrowing of his pupils, still contracted to slits by his desire for the woman. His pulse was throbbing, his fangs stretched long in carnal hunger, all of which did nothing to curb his frustration over nearly losing control of the situation in there with Tess.
Dante could only imagine how far he would have been tempted to take things with Tess if her boyfriend hadn't returned when he did, with the crowd watching or not. There had been a moment, as the human male approached them from the bar, that Dante had entertained some rather primitive thoughts. Murderous thoughts, brought on by his want for Tess.
He should never have come here tonight.
What had he been trying to prove? That he was stronger than the blood bond that linked her to him now?
All he'd proven was his own arrogance. His raging body would be reminding him of that fact for the rest of the night. The way he was knotted up right now, he might be strung out for the rest of the week.
Although he was finding it damn hard to regret feeling Tess melt for him so sweetly. The taste of her blood on his tongue when he'd nicked her lip with his fangs stayed with him, making the rest of his torment seem like child's play.
What he felt right now surpassed base need, carnal or otherwise. It had only been sixteen hours since he'd last fed, yet he thirsted for Tess like he'd gone sixteen days without nourishment. Sixteen hours since he'd last gotten off, and yet he could think of nothing he craved more than to bury himself inside her. Seriously bad news, that's what he was dealing with here.
He needed to get his head on straight, and quick. He hadn't forgotten that he still had a mission to contend with tonight. He was more than ready to focus on something other than the furious pound of his libido.
Digging into the pocket of his dark coat, Dante pulled out his cell and dialed the compound. "Chase report in for patrol yet?" he barked into the device when Gideon picked up the call.
"Not yet. He's not due 'til ten-thirty."
"What time is it now?"
"Uh, it's quarter to nine. Where are you, anyway?"
Dante exhaled a dry chuckle, every cell in his body still hardwired for want of Tess. "Somewhere I never thought I would be, brother."
And far too much time to kill before his second night of show-and-tell with Harvard began. Dante didn 't have that much patience normally, let alone now. "Call the Darkhaven for me," he told Gideon. "Tell Harvard that class begins early tonight. I'm on my way there to pick him up."
Ben insisted on escorting her up to her apartment after the taxi dropped them off. His van was parked on the street below her place, and while Tess had hoped for quick a good-bye at the curb, Ben was intent on playing the gentleman and seeing her to her door on the second floor. His footsteps echoed hollowly behind her as the two of them climbed the old wooden stairs, then paused outside Apartment 2-F. Tess opened her evening bag and felt around inside for her key.
"I don't know if I told you," Ben said softly at her back, "but you look really beautiful tonight, Tess."
She winced, feeling guilty for going with him to the exhibit, especially in light of what had so unexpectedly happened with the man she'd met there.
With Dante, she thought, his name sliding through her mind like dark, soft velvet.
"Thank you," she murmured, and stuck her key into the lock. "And thank you for taking me tonight, Ben. It was very sweet of you."
As the door creaked open, she felt his fingers toy with a strand of her loose hair. "Tess--"
She pivoted to tell him good night, to tell him that this would be the last time that she would go out with him as a couple, but as soon as she was facing him, Ben's mouth came down on hers in an impulsive kiss.
Tess drew back just as abruptly, too startled to couch her reaction. She didn't miss the wounded look in his eyes. The flash of bitter understanding reflected there as she lifted her hand to her lips and shook her head.
"Ben, I'm sorry, but I can't... "
He exhaled sharply, running a hand through his golden hair. "Nah, forget it. My mistake."
"I just... " Tess struggled for the right words. "We can't keep doing this, you know. I want to be your friend, but--" "I said forget it." His voice was curt, stinging. "You've told me how you feel, Doc. I guess I'm just a little slow on the uptake."
"This is my fault, Ben. I shouldn't have gone with you tonight. I didn't mean for you to think that--"
He gave her a tight smile. "I don't think anything. Anyway, I've got to go. Things to do, places to be."
He started moving back toward the stairs. Tess came out into the hallway, feeling terrible for the way things were going. "Ben, don't leave like this. Why don't you come in for a while? Let's talk."
He didn't even answer, just looked at her for a long moment, then pivoted around and jogged down the steps. A few seconds later, the door of her apartment building banged shut. Tess went back inside, locked her door behind her, then drifted over to watch from her front window as Ben climbed into his van and sped away into the dark.
Behind the cover of dark sunglasses and the flickering light of strobes in the dance club, Dante scanned the crowd of flailing, gyrating humans. Since picking Chase up from his Darkhaven residence a couple of hours earlier, they'd run across only one Rogue, a rangy-looking male who'd been sniffing out prey among the homeless. Dante had given Harvard a quick lesson in the miracle of titanium when it meets a Rogue's corrupted blood system, smoking the suckhead on the spot.
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