Page 15


There were eyes on him somewhere across the room. He searched the crowd for the intrusion... and found himself staring at one of the Order's warriors.


Tegan.


So much for holding himself to a higher standard than the Breed males who chose to live a life of violence and almost vigilante justice.


How much of Chase's degrading lack of control had Tegan seen? Probably all of it, although the vampire's expression betrayed nothing, just held him in a cold, flat, knowing gaze. The warrior stared for another moment, then simply turned and strolled out of the place.


A pair of bright yellow eyes with slivered pupils stared back at Dante from his flat-screen computer monitor. The beast's mouth was dropped open, lips curled back from a fairly impressive set of fangs. It was a look of hissing fury, but the caption beneath the photograph described the subject as a sweet and cuddly pa who would love to go home with you today.


"Jesus," Dante murmured, repulsed. He saw enough of that spitting, feral look every night he spent topside, hunting Rogues.


Hell, sometimes he saw the same hideousness reflected in his own mirror, when blood hunger, lust, or rage brought out his primal nature. Pain from his nightmare visions often did the trick too: slitting his pupils, turning his light brown eyes to fiery amber, and stretching his fangs out from his gums.


He'd had another one of those hellish dreams just today. It woke him out of a dead sleep around noon and left him sweating and shaky for several hours afterward. The damn things were getting more frequent lately, more intense. And the splintering headaches they left in their wake were real ass-kickers.


Dante nudged the wireless mouse next to his keyboard, scrolling past the Felines category to the Canines. He clicked the button to bring up the inventory of available animals, then did a quick scan through the photos. A few looked promising for his purposes, in particular a sad-faced hound named Barney who was in need of special care and dreaming of a nice place to spend the last of his golden years.


That ought to work. He certainly wasn't looking for anything long term.


Dante flipped open his cell phone and dialed the shelter's number. A gum-smacking young woman with a thick Boston accent picked up on about the fifth ring.


"Eastside Small Animal Rescue, can I help you?"


"I need one of your animals," Dante told her.


"Excuse me?"


"The dog from your website, the old one. I want it."


There was a beat of silence, then a loud crack of the girl's gum. "Oh! You mean Baah-ney?"


"Yes, that one."


"Well, I'm sorry, but he's been adopted. Is he still on our front page? They must have forgotten to update the website for him. What kind of dog are you looking for? We have several others who need good homes."


"I need an animal tonight."


She gave an uncertain little laugh. "Um, that's not really how we work. We'd need you to come in and fill out an application, and then meet with one of our--"


"I can pay."


"Well, that's fine, because we do require a small donation to help cover treatment and--" "Would a hundred dollars suffice?"


"Er... "


"Two?" he asked, not really caring what it cost. "It's very important to me."


"Yeah," she said, "I'm, uh... I'm getting that idea."


Dante lowered his voice and focused on the pliable human mind at the other end of the telephone connection. "Help me out here. I really need one of your animals. Now, let's give it some thought, and you tell me what it's going to take to make this happen."


She hesitated for a long few seconds, then, "Look, I could totally get fired for this, but we do have a dog that just came in today. He hasn't even been examined yet, but he doesn't seem like he's in the best shape. And I'll be honest with you, he's not much to look at either. We don't have space for him right now, so he's actually on the list for euthanasia in the morning."


"I'll take him." Dante checked the time. It was just past five o'clock, already dark topside, thanks to New England sitting on the front end of the Eastern Time Zone. Harvard wouldn't be showing up at the compound for another four hours. Plenty of time for him to complete this little transaction before he had to link up with the agent for the night's patrol. He stood up, grabbing his coat and keys. "I'm on my way. I'll be there in twenty minutes."


"Okay. We close at five-thirty, but I'll wait for ya. Just come around back and ask for Rose. That's me." She cracked her gum again, her jaw working audibly in a flurry of quick snaps. "Ah, about the money--the two hundred bucks? Can you pay cash?"


Dante smiled as he started for the door. "Done."


Chapter Fifteen


Tess double-checked the last figure on her computer monitor, making sure the amount was correct before she clicked the button to complete the funds transfer. The overdue clinic bills were paid now, but her savings account was more than a thousand dollars lighter. And next month, the bills would start all over again.


"Hey, Tess?" Nora appeared in the open doorway and gave a hesitant rap on the jamb. "Sorry to interrupt, but it's almost six o'clock and I have to take off to study for an exam tomorrow. You want me to lock up?"


"Okay," Tess said, rubbing at her temples, where twin knots of stress had begun to settle. "Thanks, Nora. Have a good night." Nora looked at her for a long moment, then down at the stack of bills on the desk. "Everything all right?"


"Yeah." Tess attempted a reassuring smile. "Yes, everything is fine."


"I saw the notice from the building landlord today. Rent's going up after the first of the year, huh?"


Tess nodded. "Just eight percent."


It wasn't much, actually, but she could barely cover the clinic lease as it was. The increase would likely be the final nail in the coffin, unless she started charging more for services. That would probably cost her half of her clients, which would put her right back in the hole. The only reasonable alternative was to close the clinic, pull up stakes, and move on to something else.


Tess wasn't afraid of that option; she was used to moving around. Sometimes she wondered if it wasn 't easier for her to start over than to really dig in somewhere. She was still searching for that soft place to fall. Maybe she would never find it.


"Look, Tess, I've, um, been meaning to talk to you about something. My classes are getting pretty intense this last semester, and I really need to buckle down." She hesitated, lifting her shoulder. "You know I love working here, but I'm going to have to scale back my hours."


Tess nodded, accepting. "Okay."


"It's just that between the clinic and studying, I hardly have time to breathe anymore, you know? My dad's getting remarried in a few weeks, so I also have to think about moving out of his place. Anyway, my mom really wants me to come back to California after I graduate in the spring... "


"It's okay. Really, I understand," Tess said, relieved in a small way.


She'd shared with Nora some of the business's financial struggles, and while Nora had insisted on riding it out with her, Tess still felt responsible. In fact, there were times she felt as though she was keeping the clinic afloat more for her clients and Nora than for herself. She was good at her work--she knew that--but she couldn't help feeling that this new life she had made was just another form of hiding. From her past, certainly, but also from the here and now. From something that she was afraid to examine too closely.


You're always running away, Tess.


Dante's words from last night replayed in her mind. She'd been reflecting on what he said, knowing that his observation of her was right. Like him, she often felt that if she just kept moving, kept running, she might--just might--be able to survive. She didn't fear eventual death, though. Her demon was always close by her side.


Deep down, she knew that what she was really running from was herself.


Tess straightened a stack of papers on her desk, pulling herself back to the conversation. "When were you thinking of cutting back your hours?"


"Well, as soon as you can let me, I guess. It kills me that you've been bankrolling my paycheck from your personal funds, anyway."


"You let me worry about that," Tess said, her words interrupted by the jangle of bells on the clinic's front entrance. Nora glanced over her shoulder. "That must be UPS with our supply order. I'll run out and grab it before I go."


She jogged away and Tess heard muffled conversation in the reception area. Then Nora was back again, a flush of pink in her cheeks.


"It's definitely not UPS in the lobby," she said, keeping her voice low as if she didn't want to be overheard. "It's an absolute god."


Tess laughed. "What?"


"Are you up for a walk-in? Because this amazing-looking guy is waiting out there with a pitiful little dog."


"Is it an emergency?"


Nora shrugged. "I don't think so. No obvious blood or trauma, but the guy is pretty insistent. He asked for you. And did I mention he's drop-dead gorgeous?"


"You did," Tess said, standing up from her desk and coming around to put on her white lab coat. A tingle kicked up below her ear, an odd prickling sensation like the one she'd felt at the museum exhibit and again last night, when she was standing next to Dante at the coffee shop. "Tell him I'll be right out, please."


"No problem." Nora hooked her hair behind her ear, smoothed her low-cut sweater, and trotted off.


It was him. Tess knew it was Dante, even before she heard his voice rumble in the lobby. She found herself smiling into her hand, weathering a wild current of excitement to think that he had sought her out after the embarrassing way she'd left things with him last night in the park.


Oh, God. This jolt of hormones was bad, bad news. She wasn't the type to go all giddy over a man, but Dante did something to her that she'd never felt before.


"Get a grip," she whispered to herself as she headed out of her office and into the hallway that opened onto the lobby area.


Dante stood at the tall reception station, holding a small bundle in his arms. Nora was leaning across the countertop to pet the little dog, cooing adoringly and flashing Dante a nice shot of her cleavage. Tess couldn't blame Nora for flirting. Dante just had that effect on a woman; not even Tess was immune to his dark allure.


His eyes had locked on to her the instant she entered the room, and if Tess wanted to act cool and unaffected, she was probably failing miserably. Her smile wouldn't dim, and her fingers trembled a bit as she brought her hand up to the side of her neck, where the queer tingling seemed to gather the strongest.


"This must be Harvard," she said, glancing to the rather emaciated-looking terrier mix in Dante's arms. "When I said I wanted to meet him, I guess I didn't expect it would be so soon."


Dante frowned. "Is this a bad time?"


"No. No, it's fine. I'm just... surprised, that's all. You keep surprising me."


"You guys know each other?" Nora was gaping at Tess like she wanted to high-five her.


"We, uh... we met a couple of nights ago," Tess stammered. "At the museum reception. Last night we ran into each other again in the North End."


"I was out of line," Dante said, looking at her as if they were the only people in the room. "I didn't mean to upset you last night, Tess."


She waved off his concern, wishing she could forget the whole thing. "It was nothing. I wasn't upset, really. You didn't do anything wrong. I should be the one apologizing to you for running off like I did."


Nora's gaze bounced between the two of them, as if the tension Tess felt from being near Dante was palpable to the other woman as well. "Maybe you two would like to be alone--"


"No," Tess answered abruptly, at the same time that Dante calmly said, "Yes."


Nora hesitated for a second, then turned and gathered her coat and handbag from a hook behind her desk. "I'll just... um, see you in the morning, Tess."


"Yeah, all right. Good luck with your studying."


With her back to Dante, Nora looked at Tess and silently mouthed the words Oh, my God! as she started off for the back exit, where her car was parked. A few seconds later, the low rumble of an engine sounded, then faded away as Nora took off.


Until now, Tess had been so distracted by Dante's presence, she'd hardly noticed the condition of the dog. Now she couldn't help feeling a wash of pity for the animal. Its dull brown eyes were half closed, and a faint but audible respiratory wheeze sawed out of its lungs. On sight alone, Tess could tell that the dog was in need of care.


"Do you mind if I take a look at him?" she asked, glad to have something to focus on aside from Dante and the awareness that seemed to crackle between them. At his nod of agreement, Tess took a stethoscope out of her lab-coat pocket and hooked it around her neck. "When's the last time Harvard had veterinary care?"


Dante gave a vague shrug. "I'm not sure."


Tess gently took the dog from Dante's arms. "Come on. Let's have a closer look in one of the exam rooms."


Dante followed in watchful silence, coming to stand right beside her as Tess placed the trembling animal onto the stainless steel table. She put the scope under the dog's chest and listened to the rapid beat of his heart. There was a pretty significant murmur, and his respiration was definitely off, as she suspected. She felt carefully around his pronounced rib cage and made a note of the lack of elasticity in his flea-ridden fur. "Has Harvard been sleeping a lot lately? Lethargic?"

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