She wanted to believe that so badly, hot tears welled in her eyes. "Dante, I... "
A silence stretched out to some long seconds. When the words failed her, Tess reached over to where the hem of the towel split over Dante's right thigh, exposing the gash on his leg. She lifted her gaze to him, then held her palm over the wound. She focused all her thoughts, all her energy, until she felt the healing begin.
Dante's injured skin began to fuse together, sealing as cleanly as if the damage had never occurred. After a few moments, she drew her hand away and cradled her tingling palm against her body.
"My God," Dante said, his voice low, dark brows knit into a deep frown.
Tess stared at him, uncertain what to say or how to explain what she'd just done. She waited in terrible silence for his reaction, uncertain what to make of his calm acceptance of what he'd just experienced.
He traced his fingers over the smooth, uninjured skin, then looked back at her. "Is this how you do your work at the clinic, Tess?"
"No." She denied it quickly, giving a vigorous shake of her head. The uncertainty she'd felt a second ago began sliding into fear of what Dante would think of her now. "No, I don't--not ever. Well... I made an exception when I treated Harvard, but that was the only time."
"What about humans?"
"No," she said. "No, I don't--"
"You've never used your touch on another person?"
Tess got to her feet, a cold panic washing over her when she thought about the last time--the final, damning time--she'd put her hands on another human being before this rash demonstration with Dante. " My touch is a curse. I wish I didn't have this ability at all."
"It's not a curse, Tess. It's a gift. A very extraordinary gift. Jesus, when I think of all that you could do --"
"No!" She shouted the refusal before she could bite it back, her feet carrying her a few steps away from where Dante was now getting up from the sofa. He looked at her with a mix of confusion and concern. "I never should have done this. I never should have showed you."
"Well, you have, and now you have to trust me to understand. Why are you so afraid, Tess? Is it me you fear or is it your gift?"
"Stop calling it that!" She hugged herself in a tight grip, memories flooding her like a black, clutching undertow. "You wouldn't call it a gift if you knew what it has made me into--what I have done."
Dante came toward her then, moving slowly, his large body filling her vision and crowding her in the small living room. She thought she should want to run--to hide, as she'd been doing for the past nine years--but an even stronger impulse made her want to fly into his arms and let everything spill out of her in an ugly but cleansing rush.
She drew in a breath and was embarrassed to hear the hitch of a sob catching in the back of her throat.
"It's all right," Dante said, his gentle voice and the tender way he took her into his embrace nearly making her break apart. "Come here. It's okay."
Tess clung to him, balancing on the edge of an emotional chasm she could feel but didn't dare look into yet. She knew the fall would be steep and painful, so many jagged rocks waiting to cut her open if she let go. Dante didn't push her. He just held her in the warm circle of his arms, letting her draw from his steady, solid strength.
Finally, the words found their way to her tongue. The weight of them was too much, the taste too vile, so she forced them out into the open.
"When I was fourteen, my father died in a car accident in Chicago. My mother remarried that next year, to a man she met at our church. He had a successful business in town and a big house on a lake. He was generous and friendly--everyone liked him, even me, despite the fact that I missed my real father very much.
"My mother drank, a lot, as long as I can remember. I thought she was getting better after we moved into my stepfather's house, but it wasn't long before she fell into it again. My stepfather didn't care that she was an alcoholic. He always kept the bar stocked, even after her worst binges. I started to realize that he preferred her drunk, so much the better if she spent entire evenings passed out on the sofa and wasn't aware of what he was doing."
Tess felt Dante's body go rigid around her. His muscles vibrated with a dangerous tension that felt like a shield of strength, cocooning her within their shelter. "Did he... touch you, Tess?"
She swallowed hard, nodded against the warmth of his bare chest. "At first, for almost a full year, he was careful. He hugged me too close and too long, looked at me in a way that made me uncomfortable. He tried to win me over with presents and parties for my friends at the lake house, but I didn't like being home, so once I turned sixteen I spent a lot of time out. I stayed over with friends, spent the summer at camp, anything to be away. But eventually I had to come home. Things escalated in the months leading up to my seventeenth birthday. He became violent toward both my mother and me, knocking us around, saying awful things to us. And then, one night... "
Tess's courage faltered, her head swimming with the remembered din of profanity and hysterical rantings, the clumsy racket of drunken stumbling, the splintering crash of breaking glass. And she could still hear the soft creak of her bedroom door that night her stepfather woke her from a fitful sleep, his breath stinking of liquor and cigarette smoke.
His meaty hand had been salty with sweat when he clamped it over her mouth to keep her from screaming.
"It was my birthday," she whispered numbly. "He came into my bedroom around midnight, telling me that he wanted to give me a birthday kiss."
"That disgusting son of a bitch." Dante's voice was a vicious growl, but his fingers were gentle as he stroked her hair. "Tess... Christ. The other night by the river, when I tried to do the same thing--"
"No. It wasn't the same thing. It reminded me, yes, but it wasn't at all the same thing."
"I'm so sorry. About everything. Especially what you've been through."
"Don't," she said, not willing to accept his sympathy when she hadn't gotten to the worst of it yet. " After my stepfather came into my room, he got on the bed with me. I fought him, kicking him, slapping him, but he was much stronger than me and he pinned me down with his weight. Sometime during the struggle, I heard him draw in a sharp breath. He choked a little, like he was in pain. He stopped trying to hold me down, and I finally managed to roll him off me. He let go because his heart had seized up. He was turning deep red, then blue--dying right there on the floor of my bedroom."
Dante said nothing in the long silence that followed. Maybe he knew where her confession was heading. She couldn't stop now. Tess pushed out a long breath, approaching the point of no return. " About this time, my mother came in. Drunk as usual. She saw him and she went hysterical. She was furious--with me, I mean. She screamed at me to help him, to not let him die."
"She knew what you could do with your touch?" Dante asked gently, easing her through it.
"She knew. She'd seen it firsthand, when I would take away her bruises and heal the broken bones. She was so mad at me--she blamed me for my stepfather's heart attack. I think she blamed me for everything."
"Tess," Dante murmured. "She wasn't right to blame you for any of it. You do know that, right?"
"Now, yes. I know. But in that moment, I was so afraid. I didn't want her to be unhappy. So I helped him, just like she ordered me to do. I started his heart and cleared the blockage in his artery. He didn't know what happened to him, and we didn't tell him. It wasn't until three days later that I discovered just how bad of a mistake I'd made."
Tess closed her eyes and she was back in time, walking out to her stepfather's toolshed to look for a putty knife for one of her sculpture projects. She was taking out the stepladder, climbing up to search the top shelves of the old shed. She didn't see the small wooden box until her elbow knocked it to the floor.
Pictures fell out, dozens of them. Polaroids of children of various ages, in various states of undress, some being touched by the photographer as he snapped the picture. She would have known those terrible hands anywhere.
Tess shuddered in Dante's arms, chilled to her marrow.
"I wasn't the only one my stepfather victimized. I found out that he'd been abusing kids in worse ways for what had to have been years, maybe decades. He was a monster, and I had given him a second chance to hurt someone else."
"Jesus," Dante hissed, drawing her away from him now but holding her tenderly as he looked on her with a sickened, furious look. "It wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known, Tess."
"But once I did," she said, "I had to make it right." At Dante's frown, she let out a soft, wry laugh. "I had to take back what I had given him."
"Take it back?"
She nodded. "That same night, I left my bedroom door open and I waited for him. I knew he'd come, because I asked him to. When he crept in after my mother was asleep, I invited him onto my bed--God, that was the hardest part of all, pretending that the sight of him didn't make me want to vomit. He stretched out beside me, and I told him to close his eyes, that I wanted to repay him for the birthday kiss he'd given me a few nights before. I told him not to peek, and he obeyed me, he was so damn eager.
"I straddled his waist and put my hands on his chest. All my anger rushed to my fingertips in a second, like an electrical current that ripped through me and directly into him. His eyes flew open, and he knew-- the look of terror and confusion in his eyes told me that he knew exactly what I intended for him. But it was too late for him to react. His body spasmed violently, and his heart went into immediate arrest. I held on with every ounce of my resolve, feeling his life leak away. I didn't let go for twenty minutes, long after he was gone, but I had to be sure."
Tess didn't realize she was crying until Dante reached out and wiped away her tears. She shook her head, voice strangling in her throat. "I left home that same night. I came out here to New England and stayed with friends until I was able to finish school and get a fresh start."
"What about your mother?"
Tess shrugged. "I never spoke to her again, not that she cared. She never tried to find me, and I was glad for that, to tell you the truth. Anyway, she died a few years ago of liver disease, from what I understand. After that night--after what I did--I just wanted to forget everything."
Dante gathered her close again, and she didn't fight the warmth. She burrowed into his heat, drained from reliving the nightmare of her past. Speaking the words had been hard, but now that they were out, she felt a sense of liberation, of sagging relief.
God, she was so exhausted. It seemed as though all her years of running and hiding had caught up with her at once, pulling her into a deep fatigue.
"I swore to myself that I would never use my ability again, not on any living thing. It's a curse, like I told you. Maybe now you understand."
Tears stung her eyes and she let them fall, trusting that she was in a safe harbor, at least for now. Dante's strong arms were wrapped around her protectively. His softly murmured words were a comfort she needed more than she could ever have imagined.
"You did nothing wrong, Tess. That human scum had no right to live as he was doing. You dispensed justice on your own terms, but it was justice. Never doubt that."
"You don't think I'm... some kind of monster? That I'm not much better than him to have killed him like I did, in cold blood?"
"Never." Dante lifted her chin on the edge of his hand. "I think you're courageous, Tess. An avenging angel, that's what I think."
"I'm a freak."
"No, Tess, no." He kissed her tenderly. "You're amazing."
"I'm a coward. Just like you said, I always run away. It's true. I've been afraid and running for so long, I'm not sure I can ever stop."
"Then run to me." Dante's eyes were fierce as he held her gaze. "I know all about fear, Tess. It lives in me too. That `seizure' I had in your clinic? It's not a medical condition, not even close."
"What is it?"
"Death," he said woodenly. "For as long as I can remember, I've had these attacks--these visions-- of my last moments alive. It's hellish beyond imagining, but I see it as if it's happening. I feel it, Tess. It's my fate."
"I don't understand. How can you be sure of that?"
His smile was wry. "I'm sure. My mother had similar visions of her own death, and my father's too. They happened precisely as she envisioned them. She couldn't change what was to happen, or turn it back. So I've been trying to outrun my own end. I've been running from it forever. I've kept myself insulated from things that might make me want to slow down and live. I've never permitted myself to truly feel." "There's danger in feeling," Tess murmured. Although she could not begin to imagine what kind of pain Dante carried within him, she felt a kinship growing between them. Both alone, both adrift in their worlds. "I don't want to feel anything for you, Dante."
"God, Tess. I don't want to feel anything for you either."
He held her gaze as his lips slowly descended on hers. His kiss was sweet and tender, something reverent. It broke down all of her walls, the bricks of her past and her pain tumbling away, leaving her naked to him and unable to hide. Tess kissed him back, needing more. She was cold to her bones, and she needed all the warmth he could give her.
"Take me to bed," she whispered against his mouth. "Please, Dante... "
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