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Chase swore roundly. "I had to let the human go. I had no choice."

"Wrong answer," Dante snarled, bringing that hellish blade up under his chin. "The Crimson dealer would do me no good if he was locked up at the compound. I need him on the street, helping me look for someone--my nephew. I let him go so he would help me find Camden, my brother's son."

Dante scowled, but the blade eased up a little. "What about the others who've gone missing? All those kids Ben Sullivan has been feeding with his drug?"

"Getting Camden back is what I care about. He's been my true mission from day one."

"Son of a bitch, you lied to us," the warrior hissed.

Chase met the accusing amber glare. "Would the Order have bothered to help me if I'd come around asking for you to find one missing Darkhaven youth?"

Dante cursed, low and furious. "You'll never know, will you?"

He wondered now, having come to understand some of the warriors' code--having seen firsthand that, despite their ruthless methods and the efficiency that made them such a mysterious and deadly force among the Breed and humankind alike, they were not without honor. They were merciless killers when needed, but Chase suspected that every one of them was, at heart, a far better man than him.

Dante abruptly released him, then pivoted around to stalk back toward the waiting Rover. Across the lawn, Tegan let Elise go as well, the warrior's steady green gaze lingering on her as she anxiously stumbled away from him, rubbing at the places where he had touched her.

"Get in the truck, Harvard," Dante said, indicating the open back door with a look that promised hell to pay if Chase didn't cooperate. "You're going back to the compound. Maybe you can persuade Lucan that we ought to let you keep breathing."

Chapter Twenty-seven

Cold sweat trickled down the back of Ben Sullivan's neck as he finished up the first sample of his new batch of Crimson. He hadn't been lying about not having the recipe committed to memory; he did his best to re-create the drug in the absurdly short time he'd been allowed. With barely a half hour to spare, he collected a dose of the reddish substance and carried it over to his test subject. The young man, dressed in filthy blue jeans and a Harvard sweatshirt, slumped against the restraints that held him prisoner in a wheeled office chair, his head down, chin resting on his chest.

As Ben neared him, the door to the makeshift basement lab opened and his dark employer strode inside, walking between the two armed guards who'd been supervising Ben's progress the whole time.

"I didn't have a chance to vacuum-filter the moisture out of the stuff," Ben said, making excuses for the cup of pasty goo he'd produced and hoping to hell he got the recipe right. "This kid looks like he's in rough shape. What if he can't chew it?"

There was no reply, only measuring, deadly silence.

Ben blew out a nervous breath and approached the kid. He knelt down in front of the chair. From under the fall of unkempt hair, listless eyes opened to heavy slits, then closed again. Ben peered up into the drawn, sallow face of what had probably been a good-looking kid at one time--

Ah, shit.

He knew this kid. Knew him from around the clubs--a fairly regular customer--and this was also the smiling, youthful face he'd seen in the photograph just last night. Cameron or Camden was his name? Camden, he thought, the kid Ben was supposed to help locate for the fanged psycho who'd promised to kill him if he didn't oblige. Not that that threat was any more serious than the one Ben faced now.

"Let's get on with it, Mr. Sullivan."

Ben spooned a bit of the raw Crimson out of the cup and lifted it to the kid's mouth. The instant the substance touched his lips, Camden's tongue snaked out hungrily. He closed his mouth around the spoon and sucked it clean, seeming to revive for an instant. A junkie nuzzling up to what he hoped was his next fix, Ben realized, a pang of guilt sticking him.

Ben waited for the Crimson to take effect.

Nothing happened.

He gave Camden more, and then some more again. Still nothing. Damn it. The recipe wasn't right.

"I need more time," Ben murmured as the kid's head lolled back down with a groan. "I've almost got it, but I just need to try it again."

He stood up, turned around, and was shocked to find his menacing patron standing directly in front of him. Ben hadn't heard the guy move at all, yet here he was, looming over him. Ben saw his own haggard reflection in the sheen of the man's dark glasses. He looked desperate and terrified, a cornered animal trembling before a fierce predator.

"We're getting nowhere, Mr. Sullivan. And I'm out of patience."

"You said two hours," Ben pointed out. "I still have a few minutes--"

"Not negotiable." The cruel mouth stretched into a sneer, revealing the bright tips of sharp white fangs. "Time's up."

"Oh, Jesus!" Ben recoiled, knocking into the chair behind him and sending it and the kid held captive on it rolling backward in a clatter of spinning wheels. He stumbled away in a graceless crawl, only to feel strong fingers bite into his shoulders, hauling him up off the floor as if he were weightless. Ben was spun around harshly and sent crashing into the far wall. Agony splintered through the back of his skull as he crumpled in a heap. Dazed, Ben felt behind his head. His fingers came away bloody.

And when he focused his bleary gaze on the others in the room, his heart went tight with dread. The two guards were staring at him, their pupils narrowed to thin slits, glowing amber irises fixed on him like floodlights. One of them opened his mouth on a rasping hiss, baring huge fangs. Even Camden's attention had roused from where he sat several feet away. The kid's eyes burned through the fall of his hair, his lips peeling away from long, gleaming canines.

But as terrifying as those monstrous faces were, they had nothing on the ice-cold approach of the one who was clearly calling the shots here. He strolled over to Ben at a calm pace, polished black shoes moving soundlessly on the concrete floor. He lifted his hand and Ben was rising, drifting back onto his feet as if attached to invisible strings.

"Please," Ben gasped. "Whatever you're thinking, don't... don't do it, please. I can get the Crimson formula back for you. I swear, I'll do whatever you want!"

"Yes, Mr. Sullivan. You will."

He moved so fast Ben didn't know what hit him until he felt the hard bite of fangs in his throat. Ben struggled, smelling his own blood pouring out of the wound, hearing the wet sounds of the creature at his neck drawing deeply at his vein. The fight leaked out of Ben with every draining pull. He hung there, suspended, feeling life flow out of him, feeling consciousness dim along with his will. He was dying, all that he was flowing away from him into a pit of darkness.

"Come on, Harvard, or whatever your name really is," Tess said, guiding the little terrier across the street as the pedestrian light changed.

After closing up the clinic at six o'clock, she had decided to take a walk past Ben's apartment on the South Side, one last attempt to find him on her own before she placed a missing-persons report with the police. If he was back to trafficking narcotics, he probably deserved to get arrested, but deep down she truly cared about him and wanted to see if she could talk him into getting help before things escalated that far.

Ben's neighborhood wasn't the most desirable, particularly in the dark, but Tess wasn't afraid. Many of her clients were from this general area: hardworking, good people. Ironically, if there was anyone to be wary of in this stretch of tightly clustered duplexes and three-deckers, it was probably the drug dealer living in Apartment 3-B of the building where Tess now stood.

A television blared from the unit on the first floor, casting an eerie blue wash onto the sidewalk outside. Tess tipped her head up, looking to Ben's set of windows for any indication that he might be there. The ratty white miniblinds were drawn closed over the balcony sliders and the bedroom window. The apartment was all dark, no light showing from anywhere inside, no movement.

Or... was there?

Although it was difficult to tell, she could have sworn she saw one of the sets of blinds sway against the window--as if someone inside had moved them or walked by them and bumped them, unaware.

Was it Ben? If he was home, he evidently didn't want anyone to know, including her. He hadn't returned any of her phone calls or e-mails, so why would she think he'd want her showing up at his place now?

And if he wasn't home? What if someone had broken in? What if it were some of his drug contacts waiting for him to return? What if someone was up there right now, turning his place upside down looking for the flash drive she had in her coat pocket? Tess backed away from the building, an anxious crawl working its way up her spine. She held Harvard 's leash in a death grip, silently shooing him from the dried-out shrubs that lined the sidewalk.

Then she saw it again--a definite shift of the blinds in Ben's unit. One of the sliders began to open on the dark third-level balcony. Someone was coming out. And this someone was enormous, definitely not Ben.

"Oh, shit," she whispered under her breath, stooping to pick up the dog so she could bolt the hell out of there in the next second.

She started jogging up the sidewalk, braving only the quickest glance over her shoulder. The guy was at the railing of the rickety balcony, peering out into the dark. She felt the savage heat of his stare like a lance slicing through the dark. His eyes were impossibly bright... glowing.

"Oh, my God."

Tess dashed out to cross the street. When she looked back at Ben's building again, the man on the balcony was climbing onto the railing, two more coming out behind him. The one in the lead swung his legs over the edge and dropped, as neatly as a cat, down onto the lawn. He started running up behind her, moving too fast. As if his speed had rendered her own to slow motion, her feet as sluggish as if they' d been mired in quicksand.

Tess hugged Harvard close to her chest and ran up onto the other sidewalk, darting between the cars parked at the curb. She glanced once more behind her, only to find that her pursuer was gone. She knew hope for a brief fraction of a second.

Because when she looked forward again, she saw that he was somehow, suddenly there, less than five paces in front of her, blocking her path. How could he have gotten there so fast? She hadn't even seen him move, hadn't heard his feet on the pavement.

He cocked his large head at her and sniffed at the air like an animal. He--or rather it, because whatever this was, it was far from human--began to chuckle low under its breath.

Tess backed up, moving woodenly, disbelieving. This wasn't happening. It couldn't be. This was some kind of sick joke. It was impossible.

"No." She stepped back and back, shaking her head in denial.

The big man started moving then, coming toward her. Tess's heart stuttered into a panicked beat, her every instinct clanging on high alert. She pivoted on her heel and bolted--

Just as another beastly-looking man came between the cars and hemmed her in.

"Hello, pretty," he said in a voice that was all gravel and malice.

In the pale wash of streetlight overhead, Tess's gaze locked on the guy's open mouth. His lips peeled back from his teeth in a thick hiss, revealing a huge pair of fangs.

Tess dropped the dog from her limp grasp and sent a terrified scream shooting high up into the night sky.

"Hang a left up here," Dante said to Tegan from the passenger seat of the Range Rover. Chase sat in back like he was awaiting his execution, an anticipation that Dante was about to prolong a bit more. "Let' s swing through Southie before we head for the compound."

Tegan gave a grim nod, then turned the vehicle at the light. "You got a feeling the dealer might be home?"

"I don't know. Worth a look, though."

Dante rubbed at a cold spot that had settled behind his sternum, a strange void that was squeezing his lungs, making it hard to breathe. The sensation was more visceral than physical, a hard tweaking of his instincts that put his senses on full alert. He hit the window control next to him, watching the dark glass slide open as he inhaled the cold night air.

"Everything cool?" Tegan asked, his deep voice drifting over from across the dim cockpit of the SUV. "You heading for a repeat of what happened earlier?"

"No." Dante gave a vague shake of his head, still staring out the open window, watching the blur of lights and traffic as the downtown buildings fell behind them and the old neighborhoods of South Boston came into view. "No, this is... something different."

The damn knot of cold in his chest was boring deeper, becoming glacial even as his palms began to sweat. His stomach clenched. Adrenaline dumped into his veins in a sudden, jolting flood.

What the hell?

It was fear running through him, he realized. Shell-shocked terror. Not his own, but someone else's.

Oh, Jesus.

"Stop the car."

It was Tess's fear he was feeling. Her horror reaching out to him via the blood connection they shared. She was in danger out there. Mortal danger.

"Tegan, stop the fucking car!"

The warrior hit the brakes and dragged the steering wheel hard to the right, coolly skidding the Rover onto the berm. They weren't too far from Ben Sullivan's apartment; his building could be no more than half a dozen blocks' distance--twice that if they had to navigate the maze of one-way streets and traffic lights between here and there.

Dante threw open the passenger door and jumped out onto the pavement. He dragged air into his lungs, praying he could get a tack on Tess's scent.

There it was.

He locked on to the cinnamon-sweet note braided among the thousand other mingled odors carrying on the chill night breeze. Tess's blood scent was trace, but growing stronger--too much so.


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