And maybe she wasn't, Tess thought, reflecting on all that Dante had told her--everything she had seen and been a part of in the past several hours. The past several days, she corrected herself, thinking back on Halloween night, when she'd truly first seen Dante.
When he'd sunk his fangs into her neck and turned her normal world upside down.
But maybe she wasn't being totally fair. Tess couldn't remember a time when she'd really felt a part of anything normal. She had always been... different. Her unusual ability, even more than her troubled past, had always kept her separate from other people. She'd always felt like a misfit, an outsider, unable to trust anyone with her secrets.
He had opened her eyes to so much. He'd made her feel, made her desire in ways she never had before. He'd made her hope for things she'd only dreamed of. He'd made her feel safe and understood. Worse than that, he had made her feel loved.
But that had all been based on lies. Now she had the truth--incredible as it was--and she would give just about anything to pretend it wasn't real.
Vampires and blood bonds. A mounting war between creatures who shouldn't exist outside the realm of the imagination, of nightmares.
It was all true, though.
It was real. As real as her feelings for Dante, which only made his deception cut deeper. She loved him, and she'd never been more terrified of anything in her life. She had fallen in love with a dangerous vigilante. A vampire.
The admission weighed her down as she stepped off the subway car and made her way up to street level in her North End neighborhood. The local shops were bustling with morning patrons, the outdoor market enjoying a steady flow of regular customers. Tess passed a knot of tourists who'd stopped to browse autumn melons and squash, weathering a chill that had little to do with the crisp fall air.
The closer she got to home, the deeper her sense of dread grew. One of the tenants came out as she reached the front stoop. Although she didn't know the old man by name, he smiled at her and held open the door for her to enter. Tess went inside and climbed the flight of stairs to her unit. Before she got within ten feet of the door, she realized that it had been broken into. The jamb was chewed up near the doorknob, as if it had been jimmied open and then closed to make it appear that nothing was out of place.
Tess froze, panic dousing her. She took a backward step, ready to turn around and bolt. Her spine connected with a solid mass, someone standing right behind her. A strong arm snaked around her waist, yanking her off balance, and a length of cold, sharp steel pressed meaningfully below her jaw.
"Morning, Doc. About fucking time you showed up."
"You can't be serious, Dante."
Although all of the warriors, including Chase, were gathered in the training facility watching him gear up for battle, Gideon was the first to challenge him.
"Do I look like I'm kidding?" Dante took a pistol out of one of the gun cabinets and grabbed a handful of rounds. "I've never been more serious in my life."
"Jesus Christ, D. In case you hadn't noticed, it's just after ten o'clock in the morning. That means full-on daylight."
"I know what it means."
Gideon exhaled a low curse. "You're going to fry, my man."
"Not if I can help it."
Having been around since the eighteenth century, Dante was beyond old by human standards, but as a Breed vampire, he was fairly average, his lineage being several generations distant from the Ancients and their hypersensitive alien skin. He couldn't stay topside for very long in the daytime, but he could take a small hit of UV rays and live to tell about it.
For Tess, he would be willing to walk into the core of the sun itself if he thought it might save her from the death he knew was waiting for her.
"Listen to me," Gideon said, putting his hand on Dante's arm to get his attention. "You may not be as vulnerable to the light as a Gen One, but you're still Breed. You spend more than thirty minutes in direct sunlight and you're toast."
"It's not like I'm gonna be sightseeing up there," he said, refusing to be swayed. He shrugged off his brethren's well-meaning caution and grabbed another weapon from the cabinet. "I know what I'm doing. I have to do this."
He had told the others about what he'd seen, the vision that was still tearing his heart in pieces. It killed him to think that he'd let Tess leave the compound without his protection, that he hadn't been able to stop her. That she might be in danger this very moment, while his vulnerable vampire genes forced him to hide belowground.
"What if the time you saw in your vision--eleven thirty-nine--is actually twenty-one minutes to midnight?" Gideon asked. "You can't be sure the event you saw was taking place during the morning hours. You might be putting yourself at risk for nothing--"
"And if I wait and it turns out I'm wrong? I can't take that chance." Dante shook his head. He'd tried to reach her by phone but got no answer at her apartment or the clinic. And the searing ache in his chest told him that she wasn't ignoring him purely by choice. Even without the benefit of his hellish precognition, he knew his Breedmate was in danger. "No goddamn way am I taking a chance on waiting around here ' til dark. Would you, Gideon? If Savannah needed you--I'm talking life-and-death needed you--would you even consider taking that kind of gamble? Would you, Lucan, if it were Gabrielle out there alone?"
Neither warrior denied it. There wasn't a blood-bonded male alive who wouldn't walk through a sea of fire for the woman he loved.
Lucan came toward him and held out his hand. "You honor her well."
Dante clasped his leader's strong Gen One hand--his friend's hand--and shook it firmly. "Thank you. But to be honest, I'm doing this as much for myself as I am for Tess. I need her in my life. She has become... everything to me."
Lucan nodded soberly. "Then go get her, my brother. We can celebrate your pairing when you and Tess return safely to the compound."
Dante held Lucan's regal gaze and slowly shook his head. "That is something I need to discuss with you. With all of you," he said, looking to the other warriors as well. "Assuming I survive at all, if I am able to save Tess, and if she will have me as her mate--I intend to relocate to the Darkhavens with her."
A long silence answered, his brethren staring at him in measured quiet.
Dante cleared his throat, knowing his decision must come as a shock to the warriors he'd fought alongside for more than a century. "She's been through enough already--even before I met her and dragged her into our world against her will. She deserves happiness. She deserves a hell of a lot more than I can ever hope to give her. I just want her to be safe now, far away from any danger."
"You would quit the Order for her?" Niko asked, the youngest only behind Dante, and a warrior who relished his duty perhaps even more than Dante had himself.
"I would quit breathing for her, if she asked it of me," he replied, surprising even himself with the depth of his devotion. He looked to Chase, who still owed him that second favor from last night. "What do you think? You got any pull left in the Boston Darkhaven to help me get a spot with the Agency?"
Chase smirked, lifting his shoulder in a casual shrug. "I might." He strode toward the weapons cabinet and took out a SIG Sauer. "But first things first, eh? We have to get your female back here in one piece so she can decide if she wants your sorry ass for a mate."
"We?" Dante said, watching the former Darkhaven agent suit up with the SIG and another semiauto. "Yeah, we. I'm going with you."
"Me too," Niko said, sauntering over and pulling out his own cache of weapons. The Russian grinned as he nodded toward Lucan, Gideon, and Tegan. "You're not going to leave me down here with these Gen One geezers, are you?"
"No one's coming with me. I wouldn't ask it--"
"You never have to," Niko said. "Like it or not, D, Chase and I are all you've got on this mission. You 're not doing this alone."
Dante swore, humbled and grateful for the show of support. "All right, then. Let's get moving."
With the knife biting into her neck to keep her silent, Ben forced Tess out of her building and into a waiting car on the street. He smelled bad, like soured blood and sweat and a hint of decay. His clothes were filthy and wrinkled, his normally golden hair unkempt, hanging lank and unwashed into his brow. As he shoved her into the backseat of the car, Tess caught a glimpse of his eyes. They were dull and flat, staring at her with a cold detachment that made her skin crawl.
And Ben wasn't alone.
Two other men waited in the car, both seated in the front, both sharing the same vacant glint in their eyes.
"Where is it, Tess?" Ben asked as he closed the door and shut them inside the dark vehicle. "I left a little something at the clinic the other day, but now it's not there. What did you do with it?"
The flash drive he'd lied about concealing. Which was currently in Dante's possession. As much as she doubted Dante after all she had learned about him, what she felt for Ben now was even stronger. She met his disturbingly lifeless gaze and shook her head.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Wrong answer, Doc."
Tess wasn't at all prepared for the fist that shot out at her and connected with the side of her head. She cried out, falling hard against the seat and cradling the pain that was exploding in her face.
"Maybe you'll think more clearly at the clinic," Ben said. At his indication, the driver punched the gas and the car sped up the street. Tess's vision swam as they made the drive from the North End to her clinic in East Boston. Ben's van was parked around back, right next to Nora's vintage Beetle.
"Oh, God," Tess murmured, heartsick to see her assistant's car. "What have you done to her, Ben? Tell me you haven't hurt Nora--"
"Come along, Doc," he said, ignoring her question as he opened the door beside him and motioned to her with the knife to get moving.
Tess climbed out as directed, followed by Ben and the two goons who accompanied him. They brought her in through the back of the clinic, through the storeroom and into the empty kennel area. Ben shoved her forward, into the clinic's lobby. The place was trashed, file cabinets tossed over and emptied onto the floor, furniture smashed, chemicals and pharmaceuticals spilled all over the floor. The destruction was total, but it wasn't until Tess saw Nora that her breath caught on a sob.
She was lying on the floor behind the reception station, her head coming up as Tess was brought near. They had tied her hands and feet with a telephone cord and gagged her mouth with a length of gauze from the medical supplies. Nora was crying, her face ashen, her eyes puffed and red from what looked to have been hours of torment. But she was alive, and that alone kept Tess from losing it completely.
"Oh, Nora," she said brokenly. "I'm so sorry. I'll get you out of this, I promise."
Beside her, Ben chuckled. "I'm glad to hear you say that, Doc. Because little Nora's fate depends solely on you now."
"What? What do you mean?"
"You're going to help us find that flash drive, or you're going to watch as I slit the bitch's throat in front of you."
Behind the gag in her mouth, Nora screamed. She started struggling wildly against her bonds, all in vain. One of Ben's big companions went over and hauled her to her feet, holding Nora in a bruising grip. He dragged her closer, until no more than a couple of feet separated the women. Nora pleaded with her eyes, sheer panic making her tremble like a leaf in her captor's hard grasp.
"Let her go, Ben. Please."
"Hand over the flash drive, and I will let her go, Tess."
Nora moaned, the sound imploring, desperate. Tess knew real terror then, a bone-deep dread that only bore further into her as she looked into her friend's eyes and realized that Ben and these other men were deadly serious. They were going to kill Nora--probably Tess as well--if she didn't give them what they wanted. And she couldn't give it to them, because she didn't have it.
"Ben, please. Let Nora go and use me instead. I'm the one who took the flash drive, not her. She's not involved in this--"
"Tell me where you put the drive, and maybe I'll let her go, how's that, Doc? Fair enough for you?"
"I don't have it," she murmured. "I took it out of the examination table where you hid it, but I don't have it anymore."
He fixed that unfeeling stare on her, a muscle ticking in his jaw. "What did you do with it?" "Let her go," Tess hedged. "Let her go, and I'll tell you whatever you want to know."
Ben's mouth lifted at the corner. He eyed the knife he held, toying with the razor edge of the blade. Then, in a flash of motion, he pivoted around and stuck Nora in the stomach with it.
"No!" Tess screamed. "Oh, God--no!"
Ben swung back to her, cool as could be. "That's just a gut wound, Doc. She can survive that if she gets help soon enough, but you'd better start talking fast."
Tess's knees buckled beneath her. Nora was bleeding badly, her eyes rolling back in her head from shock. "Goddamn you, Ben. I hate you."
"And I no longer care what you feel about me, Tess. All I care about is getting that flash drive back. So. Where the fuck is it?"
"I gave it to someone."
That caused a spark of animosity to flicker in Ben's dull gaze. "You mean that guy--the one you're screwing? Do you have any idea what you've done? Any idea what he is?"
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