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"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.

Chapter Fourteen

Chase drove away from the Order's estate, itchy with frustration. There would be no patrol for him tonight. All of the warriors were out on solo missions, leaving Chase with several hours of darkness to kill on his own.

The death last night of Camden's friend still ate at him, making him all the more aware that the clock was ticking fast if he stood any hope of bringing his nephew home in one piece. Chase drove by some of the places Dante had taken him on their patrols of the city, both the known and lesser-known locations where humans and vampires tended to mingle.

He searched the streets and dockyards for Camden, prowling for any sign of him or any of his friends. Several hours into it, he was still coming up empty.

He was parked somewhere in Chinatown, about to head back to the Darkhaven, when he saw two Breed youths and a couple of human females enter an unmarked door up ahead of him. Chase cut the Lexus's engine and stepped out of the vehicle. As he approached the place where the group had gone, loud music bumped from somewhere down below street level. He opened the door and crept inside.

Down a long, barely lit flight of stairs was another door. This one had a human bouncer stationed outside it, but Chase had no trouble getting past the goth steak-head as he pressed a hundred-dollar bill in the guy's hand.

Deep, thumping bass filled Chase's head as he entered the crowded club. Bodies thrashed everywhere he looked, the dancing having overtaken the room in a giant, bobbing mass. He scanned the thick crowd as he waded in farther, blue and red strobe lights blasting his eyes.

He stumbled into a drunken female who'd been dancing with some friends. Chase murmured an apology that she probably couldn't hear over the din. Belatedly, he realized that his hands were on her tight, round ass as he tried to keep her from falling.

She smiled up at him invitingly, licking her lips, which were stained bright red from the lollipop she was nursing. She danced up closer to him now, blatantly sexual as she rubbed her body against his. Chase stared at her mouth, then at the slender white column of her neck.

His veins started buzzing, a fever rising in his blood.

He should go. If Camden was in here somewhere, the odds of finding him were low. Too many people, too much noise.

The female snaked her hands up around his shoulders, grinding in front of him, her thighs brushing his. The skirt she wore was ridiculously short, so short that when she turned around and pressed her bottom into his groin, Chase saw that she wore nothing beneath it.

Jesus Christ.

He really had to get out of here-- Another pair of arms came around from behind him, one of the girl's friends deciding to play too. A third moved in and took the first one in a long wet kiss, both of them looking at Chase as their tongues slithered together like serpents.

His cock went instantly stiff in his pants. The female at his back reached down, stroking the bulge ever harder with her skilled, relentless fingers. Chase closed his eyes, feeling lust twine with another hunger, one he hadn't sated in nearly as long as his sexual urge. He was starving, his body craving both fulfillment and release.

The two females brought their kiss to him now, sharing his mouth while the crowd around them kept dancing, not caring about the carnal display taking place right there in the open. They weren't alone; Chase spotted more than one couple getting busy, more than one Breed vampire finding a Host amid the open sensuality of the place.

With a growl, Chase slid his hands under the first female's short skirt. He rucked the material up harshly, exposing her to his hungry gaze as her friend licked a hot trail along his neck.

Chase's fangs stretched long in his mouth as he plumbed the wet slit straddling his thigh. Her friends worked his zipper, tugging it down and reaching in to fondle his erection. Need coiled in him, the urge to fuck and feed overwhelming him. With a rough hand, he grabbed one of the females by the shoulders and pushed her down before him. She knelt there, freeing his cock and taking it into her mouth.

As she vigorously sucked him, and the other female rode his hand toward her own climax, Chase brought the third closer to his mouth. His fangs were throbbing even more than his sex, his vision sharpening as hunger slitted his pupils and heightened all of his senses. He parted his lips as the female's neck pressed against his mouth. With a sharp thrust, he clamped down on her, opening her vein and drawing the rich, warm blood through his teeth.

Chase fed quickly, if thoroughly, finding this uncharacteristic loss of control revolting. But he couldn't stop. He drank hard, and with each pull at his Host's vein, his release spiraled tighter in his groin. He pumped his hips, fisting one hand in the female's hair as she worked him toward climax. It was coming fast now, roaring through him...

With a furious thrust he exploded. His mouth was still latched tight on his Host. He smoothed his tongue over the puncture wounds, sealing them closed. She was panting from her own release, all three women pawing him as they mewled and whimpered for more.

Chase pushed away from their grasping hands, hating what he'd just done. He brought his palm up to the forehead of his Host and wiped her memory. Then he did the same to the other two. He wanted to get out of there so badly, he was practically shaking with the idea. Stuffing himself back into his pants, Chase felt a niggle of awareness travel along his spine.


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