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She shouldn't worry, but she did.

Aside from Nora, who never met a stranger, Ben was Tess's closest friend. Her only friends, in fact. Without them, she had no one, although she had to admit her solitary way of living was by her own design. She wasn't like other people, not really, and that awareness had always kept her separate. It kept her alone.

Tess looked down at her hands, idly tracing the little birthmark between her right thumb and forefinger. Her hands were her trade, her source of creative outlet as well. When she was younger, back home in Illinois, she used to sculpt when sleep eluded her. She loved the feel of cool clay warming under her fingertips, the smooth stroke of her knife, the slowly emerging beauty that could be coaxed out of a shapeless mound of plaster or resin.

Tonight she had brought out some of her old supplies from the closet in the hallway; the box of tools and half-rendered pieces sat in a cardboard file box on the floor beside her. How often had she retreated into her sculpting to distance herself from her own life? How many times had the clay and knives and awls been her confidante, her best friend, always there for her when she could count on nothing else?

Tess's hands had given her purpose in life, but they were also her curse and the reason she couldn't trust anyone to truly know her.

No one could know what she'd done.

Memories battered the edges of her consciousness--the angry shouts, the tears, the stench of liquor and heated, panting breath blasting across her face. The frantic pumping of her arms and legs as she tried to escape hard, grasping hands. The weight that crushed down upon her in those last few moments before her life tumbled into a chasm of fear and regret.

Tess shoved all of that out of her mind, just as she'd been doing for the past nine years since she'd left her hometown to start her life over again. To try to be normal. To fit in somehow, even if that meant denying who she really was.

Is he breathing? Oh, my God, he's turning blue! What have you done to him, you little bitch?

The words came back so easily, the furious accusations as cutting now as they had been then. This time of year always brought the memories back. Tomorrow--or rather, today, now that it was past midnight--marked the anniversary of when it all went to hell back home. Tess didn't like to remember it, but it was hard not to mark the day, since it was also her birthday. Twenty-six years old, but she still felt like that terrified girl of seventeen.

You're a killer, Teresa Dawn!

Getting up from the sofa, she padded over to the window in her pajamas and lifted the glass, letting the cold night air rush over her. Traffic hummed from the expressway and on the street below, horns honking intermittently, a lone siren wailing in the distance. The chill November wind sawed through the screen, riffling the sheers and drapes.

Look what you've done! You fix this right now, goddamn you!

Tess threw the window wider and stared out into the darkness, letting the night noises cocoon her as they muted the ghosts of her past.

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?"


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