Page 37


When she didn't reply, Ben shook his head, chuckling. "Well, you've really fucked up, Tess. It's out of my hands now."


With that, his arm shot out and his blade arced back toward Nora, making good on his earlier threat. Tess wailed as her friend was dropped, lifeless, to the floor. Ben and one of his companions grabbed Tess before she could reach out for Nora--before she had even a moment's hope of saving her with her touch. They carried her away from the carnage, trapping her legs and arms as she fought them in a burst of animal desperation.


Struggling was futile. In moments, Tess found herself on the floor of one of her exam rooms, then heard the metallic click of the lock as Ben shut her inside to await her fate.


Nikolai drove like a bat out of hell, speeding the Breed's black SUV through the city at a breakneck pace. The temptation to watch the sunlit streets and buildings fly past through the dark, UV-tinted windows was tempting--a sight Dante had never seen, and one he sincerely hoped he never would need to again--but he kept his head down in the passenger side of the vehicle, his thoughts trained on Tess.


He and the others were outfitted in head-to-toe black nylon protective clothing: fatigues, gloves, ski-mask head coverings, and close-fitting wraparound shades to shield their eyes. Even so, the jog from the vehicle to the back door of Tess's clinic building was intense.


With weapons at the ready, Dante wasted no time. He led the charge, planting his booted foot in the center of the storeroom door and kicking the steel panel right off its hinges. Smoke swirled from the fires that Sullivan had begun setting inside. The roiling plumes grew thicker with the sudden influx of air from outside. They wouldn't have much time to finish this.


"What the hell is going on?" At the crack of splintering metal and raining debris from the door, a Minion came running in to see what was wrong. Niko let him know without the slightest hesitation, firing a round of metal into the guy's skull.


Now that they were inside, Dante smelled blood and death through the smoke--not the fresh kill lying at their feet and, thankfully, not Tess either. She was still alive. He sensed her fear like his own, her current state of sorrow and pain tearing into him like heated steel.


"Sweep the place and put out the fires," he ordered Niko and Chase. "Kill anyone who stands in your way."


Tess tried the tightly wound cords that bound her hands and feet together behind her on the examination table. They wouldn't budge. But she couldn't stop trying them, even when her struggles only seemed to amuse her captor.


"Ben, why are you doing this? For God's sake, why did you have to kill Nora?"


Ben clucked his tongue. "You killed her, Tess, not me. You forced my hand."


Sorrow choked her as Ben came over to where he had trussed her up on the table.


"You know, I thought killing you was going to be difficult," he whispered near her ear, his hot, stale breath assaulting her nostrils. "You've made it very easy for me."


She watched nervously as he went around to the front of the platform and bent down to her level. His fingers were rough in her hair as he lifted her face up off the slab of cold metal. His eyes were those of a dead man, a mere shell of a human being, no longer the Ben Sullivan she once knew.


"It didn't have to be like this," he told her, his tone deceptively gentle. "Just know that you brought this on yourself. Be grateful I didn't turn you over to my Master instead."


He stroked her cheek, his touch revolting. When she flinched away, he held her hair tighter, forcing her to look at him. He leaned in as if to kiss her, and Tess spat in his face, fighting back by the only means he 'd left her.


Tess braced herself for retaliation as he raised his free hand to strike her. "You fucking bit--"


He didn't get a chance to finish speaking, let alone touch her. A blast of arctic air rushed in from the open doorway, the instant before the space filled with the massive form of a man clothed in solid black and wearing opaque wraparound sunglasses. Guns and blades hung from his hips and from the thick leather holsters that crisscrossed his muscular torso.


Dante.


Tess would know him anywhere, even beneath the cover of all that black. Hope flared in her, along with surprise. She could feel him reaching out to her with his mind, assuring her that he would get her out of there. That she was safe now.


And at the same time, she could feel his rage. The icy chill of it rolled off his huge body, centering on Ben. Dante lowered his head, the focus of his gaze readable even through the dark lenses that shielded his eyes. A glow emanated from behind those black shades--ember bright, and deadly. With the flick of a glance, Ben's body was jerked up off the floor and smashed into the cabinets on the exam-room wall. He kicked and flailed, but Dante held him aloft with just the power of his will. When another black-clad warrior appeared in the doorway, Dante growled a command.


"Get her out of here, Chase. I don't want her to see this."


Dante's companion came over and cut Tess loose, then carefully lifted her into his arms and carried her out of the clinic to an SUV that idled out back.


Once Chase had removed Tess from the room, Dante let go of his mental hold on the human. The contact severed, Sullivan dropped like dead weight to the floor. He started to scramble up, trying to grab for a knife he'd left lying on the counter. Dante sent the blade flying with a sharp mental command, embedding the steel point in the opposite wall.


He stalked farther into the room, forgoing his own weapons in order to deliver Ben Sullivan's death with his hands. He wanted vengeance now, and he meant to make the bastard suffer for what he'd intended to do to Tess. For what he had done to her in the time before Dante reached her.


"Get up," he ordered the human. "It ends here."


Sullivan chuckled, coming up slowly to his feet. When Dante met his gaze, he saw the dull glint of a mind slave in the Crimson dealer's eyes. Ben Sullivan had been turned Minion. Certainly explained his recent MIA status. Killing him by any means was going to be doing him a favor.


"Where's your Master hiding out these days, Minion?"


Sullivan only glared at him.


"Did he tell you we kicked his ass last summer, that he ran off with his tail between his legs rather than face the Order mano a mano? He's a coward and a poseur, and we're gonna take him down."


"Fuck you, vampire."


"No, I don't think so," Dante said, noting the twitch of muscle in the Minion's legs, the telltale movement that told him Sullivan was about to snap. "Fuck you, you Minion piece of shit. And fuck the son of a bitch who owns you too."


A shrill bellow came out of the Minion's mouth as he launched himself across the room at Dante. Sullivan punched and hammered at him, fists flying fast, but not so fast that Dante couldn't block them. In the scuffle, Dante's chest covering tore away, exposing his skin. With a roar, he sent a blow into the Minion's face, relishing the crack of bone and the dull smack of giving flesh that sounded on impact.


Ben Sullivan went down in a sprawl. "There is only one true Master of the race," he hissed up at Dante. "Soon he will rule as king--as is his birthright!"


"Not bloody likely," Dante replied, lifting the Minion's bulk off the floor in one hand, then sending him airborne.


Sullivan slid across the polished surface of the table where he'd held Tess and crashed into the windowed wall on the other side of the room. He righted himself at once, leaping up to his feet but weaving in front of the blinds, which swung back and forth behind him. Dante instinctively shielded his eyes from the intermittent light, bringing his arm up to block the rays. "What's the matter? Too bright for you, vampire?" He grinned through bloodstained teeth. In his hand was a piece of broken drawer, which he held before him like a jagged club. "How about a little lesson from Die Hard?"


He swung his arm back and shattered the window, knocking the blinds askew and sending glass flying all around them. Sunlight poured in, searing Dante's eyes behind his shades. He roared at the sudden agony shredding his corneas, and in that brief second of inattention, Ben Sullivan rolled out from under him, trying to escape.


Temporarily blinded, his skin heating up through his protective clothing and sizzling where the light met his exposed flesh, Dante tracked the Minion with his other senses, all of them heightened as his rage transformed him. Fangs stretched long in his mouth. Pupils narrowed on the other side of his dark lenses.


Launching up into the air, he leaped across the room in one fluid motion, pouncing on Sullivan from behind. The impact took both of them to the floor. Dante gave the Minion no chance to react. He grabbed him by his chin and brow and leaned down so that his sharp fangs brushed the bastard's ear.


"Yippeekayay, muthafucker."


With a sharp twist, Dante snapped the Minion's neck in his hands.


He dropped the limp corpse to the floor, vaguely aware of the acrid smell in the air and the faint sizzle that buzzed in his ears like a swarm of flies. Pain washed over him as he stood up and turned away from the broken window. He heard the heavy pound of boots outside the room, but he could hardly force his eyes to focus on the dark shape that filled the space between the jambs.


"It's all clear out--holy shit." Niko's voice trailed off, and then the warrior was at Dante's side, ushering him out of the light-washed room at an urgent clip. "Oh, Jesus, D. How long were you exposed? "


Dante shook his head. "Not that long. Bastard knocked out the window."


"Yeah," Niko said, his voice oddly grim. "I can see that. We have to get you out of here, man. Come on."


Chapter Thirty-six


"Holy. Hell."


The black-clad warrior in the front seat of the SUV with Tess--Chase, he'd been called--threw open the driver's-side door and leaped out, just as Dante and another man came running out of the clinic. But Dante wasn't so much running as he was stumbling, his body being held up by the warrior helping him out. His head was dropped down against his chest, uncovered, and the front of his fatigues were torn open, exposing the tawny skin of his torso, which glowed a fiery red in the bright light of the morning.


Chase opened the SUV's back door and helped the other man get Dante inside. Dante's fangs were long, the sharp points glinting white with each breath he dragged in through his open mouth. His face was contorted in pain, his pupils thin black slits in the middle of bright amber irises. He was fully transformed, the vampire Tess should fear but couldn't now.


His friends worked fast, their grim silence making Tess's blood run cold. Chase shut the back door and ran around to the driver's seat. He hopped in, threw the vehicle into gear, and they were off.


"What happened to him?" she asked anxiously, unable to see blood on Dante or any other indication of injury. "Is he wounded?"


"Exposure," said the one she didn't know, his urgent tone tinged with a Slavic accent. "Fucking Crimson dealer busted out a window. Dante had to take the bastard down in direct sunlight."


"Why?" Tess asked, watching Dante shift on the backseat, feeling his agony and the concern that emanated from both of his grave companions. "Why would he do this? Why would any of you do this?"


With small but determined movements, Dante managed to strip off one of his gloves. He reached out to her from where he lay.


"Tess... "


She took his hand in hers, watching his strong fingers engulf her own. The emotion that traveled through their connection reached deep inside her, a warmth--a knowledge--that stole her breath.


It was love, so profound, so fierce, it rendered her speechless.


"Tess," he murmured, his voice little more than air. "It was you. Not my death... yours."


"What?" She squeezed his hand, tears welling in her eyes.


"The visions... It wasn't me, but you. I couldn't--" He broke off, inhaling sharply through obvious anguish. "Had to stop it. Couldn't let you... no matter what."


Tess's tears spilled over, running down her cheeks as she held Dante's gaze. "Oh, God, Dante. You shouldn't have risked this. What if you had died in my place?"


His lip lifted slightly at the corner, baring the edge of one sharp, gleaming fang. "Worth it... seeing you here. It was worth... any risk."


Tess grasped his hand in both of hers, furious and grateful, and not a little terrified of how he looked, lying in the back of the vehicle. She held on to him and didn't let go until they had arrived at the compound. Chase parked the SUV in a cavernous hangar filled with dozens of other vehicles. They all got out, and Tess just tried to stay out of the way while Dante's companions lifted him out of the car and moved him to a bank of elevators.


Dante's condition seemed to be worsening as each minute passed. By the time they descended and the elevator doors opened, he could hardly stand up on his own. A group of three other men and two women met them in the corridor, everyone flying into swift action. One of the women came up to Tess and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I'm Gabrielle, Lucan's mate. Are you all right?"


Tess shrugged, then gave a vague nod. "Will Dante be okay?"


"I think he'll fare better if he knows you're near."


Gabrielle gestured for Tess to follow her down the corridor to the infirmary, the very wing where she had fled Dante in fear earlier that day. They entered the room where Dante had been brought, and Tess watched as his friends removed his weapons, then carefully stripped him out of his fatigues and boots and placed him in a hospital bed.


Tess was moved by the concern of all in the room. Dante was loved here, accepted for what he was. He had a family here, a home, a life--and yet he'd risked it all to save her. As much as she wanted to fear him, to resent him for everything that had gone between them, she couldn't. She looked at Dante, suffering in sacrifice for her, and all Tess felt was love.

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