"I am not a man, Tess. I am something... else."

She might have scoffed at that if he hadn't sounded so deadly serious. So deadly calm.

He was crazy.

Right. Of course he was.

Off the chain, raving lunatic, psycho crazy.

That was the only explanation she could come up with, staring in wide-eyed dread as he closed the space between them, the sheer power and size of him forcing her toward the wall at her back.

"You saved me, Tess. I didn't give you a choice, but your blood healed me." Tess shook her head. "I didn't heal you. I'm not even sure your wounds were real. Maybe you thought they were, but--"

"They were real," he said, a faint, rolling accent in his deep voice. "Without your blood, they might have killed me. But in drinking from you, I've done something to you. Something that I can't take back."

"Oh, my God." Tess felt sick, swamped with a sudden wave of nausea. "Are you talking about HIV? Please don't tell me you have AIDS... "

"Those are human diseases," he said dismissively. "I am immune to them. And so are you, Tess."

Somehow, that wacko declaration didn't give her a lot of hope. "Stop using my name. Stop acting like you know anything about me--"

"I don't expect this is easy for you to understand. I'm trying to explain as gently as I can. I owe you that much now. You see, you are a Breedmate, Tess. That's something very special to my kind."

"Your kind?" she asked, growing weary of his game. "Okay, I give up. Just what is your kind?"

"I am a warrior. One of the Breed."

"Right, a warrior. And breed, as in... what kind of breed?"

For a long moment, he just looked at her, like he was weighing his answer. "As in vampire, Tess."

Holy Moses on a pogo stick. He was beyond crazy.

Sane people did not go around pretending to be bloodsucking fiends--or worse, actually acting out their perverted fantasies, like this guy had with her.

Except there remained the fact that Tess's neck bore no trace of injury, even though she was certain-- really, bone-chillingly sure--that he had chomped into her throat with razor-sharp fangs and swallowed quite a bit of her blood.

And then there was the incredible fact that he was standing here, walking and talking with no effect whatsoever of the tranquilizer that should have laid him low well into next week.

What could possibly explain any of that?

Distant police sirens wailed from someplace outside, the steady whine seeming on the approach to the clinic's section of the city. Tess heard them, and so did the psycho-ward escapee holding her hostage. He cocked his head slightly, his whiskey-colored eyes never leaving her for a second. He smiled wryly, just the barest curve of his broad mouth, then cursed low under his breath.

"Sounds like your boyfriend phoned in some backup."

Tess was too anxious to answer, uncertain what might provoke him now that he knew the authorities were on the way.

"Brilliant way to fuck up an evening," he growled, seemingly to himself. "This isn't the right way to leave things between us, but right now it doesn't appear I have much choice."

His hand came up near Tess's face. She flinched to evade his touch, expecting the crush of a hard fist or some other brutality. But she felt only the warm press of his large open palm against her forehead. He leaned in to her, and she felt the feather-soft brush of his lips against her cheek. "Close your eyes," he murmured.

And Tess's world went dark.

"No signs of any suspicious activity, folks. We checked all points of entry around the building, and everything looks tight and in order."

"Thank you, Officer," Tess said, feeling like an idiot for creating all the fuss at such a late--or, rather, early--hour.

Ben stood next to her in her office, his arm slung lightly around her shoulders in a protective, if a bit territorial, stance. He'd arrived a short while ago, not long after police sirens woke her out of an unusually deep sleep. She'd been working too late, evidently, and had dozed off at her desk. Somehow, she had knocked the phone and activated the speed dial for Ben's cell. He'd seen the clinic number come up on caller ID and worried that she was in some kind of trouble.

His subsequent three A.M. call to 911 sent two officers out to the clinic on a drive-by.

While they had not found any cause for alarm as far as break-ins or late-night intruders, they did find Shiva. One of the cops had questioned them on where the tiger had come from, and when Ben insisted that he'd found the animal, not stolen it, the officer was quietly skeptical. He allowed that with it being Halloween night, advertising mascots were unusually high targets for adolescent mischief, a fact that Ben was quick to assure him must have been the case with Shiva.

Ben was lucky he hadn't ended up in handcuffs. As it stood, he'd gotten off with a warning and a stern suggestion that he return Shiva to the gun shop first thing in the morning, just so nobody got the wrong idea and wanted to press charges.

Tess slid from under the weight of Ben's arm and held her hand out to the officer. "Thanks again for coming by here. Can I get you some coffee or hot tea? I've got both, and it will only take a few minutes to make it."

"No, thank you, ma'am." The policeman's comm device gave a short burst of static, followed by a coded string of new orders from Dispatch. He spoke into a mic clipped to his lapel, giving the all-clear on the veterinary clinic. "Looks like we're all set here, then. You folks take care now. And, Mr. Sullivan, I trust that you'll get that tiger back where it belongs."

"Yes, sir," Ben agreed, his smile tight as he accepted the officer's hand and gave it a brief shake.

They walked the police to the door and watched as the squad car eased out onto the quiet city street.

When they were gone, Ben closed the clinic door and turned to face Tess. "You sure you're okay?"

She nodded, gave a long sigh. "Yes, I'm perfectly fine. I'm sorry I worried you, Ben. I must have fallen asleep at my desk and bumped the phone."

"Well, I still say no good can come from you working such late hours. This isn't exactly the best part of town, you know."

"I've never had any problems here."

"There's always a first time," Ben said, his expression grim. "Come on, I'll take you home." "All the way to the North End? You don't have to do that. I'll just call a cab."

"Not tonight, you won't." Ben picked up her purse and held it out to her. "I'm wide awake, and my van is right outside. Let's go, Sleeping Beauty."

Chapter Six

Dante came off the elevator at the Breed warriors' compound, looking and smelling as foul as he felt. He'd been seething--mostly at himself--the entire ride down, some three hundred feet below one of Boston's most affluent addresses and the high-security gated mansion on street level that belonged to the Order. He'd made it inside with only a few minutes to spare before dawn crested over the city to put a nice toast on his UV-allergic skin.

Which would have been the perfect topper to a night that had FUBAR written all over it.

Dante headed down the stark white corridor that twisted and turned through the heart of the labyrinthine compound. He needed a hot shower and some shut-eye and looked forward to sleeping off the daylight hours alone in his private quarters. Maybe he'd sleep off the next twenty years, long enough to avoid dealing with the glorious mess he'd made topside tonight.

"Yo, D."

Dante muttered a curse under his breath when he heard the voice calling him from the other end of the corridor. It was Gideon, resident computer genius and right-hand man to Lucan, the Order's venerable leader. Gideon had the compound wired tight inside and out; he'd probably been on to Dante's arrival from the second he stepped onto the property.

"Where you been, man? You were supposed to call in your status hours ago."

Dante turned around slowly in the long hallway. "I guess you could say my status got a bit fucked up."

"No shit," the other vampire replied, taking him in with a shrewd glance over the top of square-cut pale blue shades. He chuckled, shaking his spiky crown of blond hair. "Gad, you look like hell. And you smell like toxic waste. What the devil happened to you?"

"Long story." Dante gestured to his shredded, bloodied, sodden clothing, which was rank with brine, sludge, and God knew what else from his trip down the Mystic River. "I'll fill everyone in later. Right now I need a shower."

"Industrial strength," Gideon agreed. "But cleanup is gonna have to wait awhile. We've got company in the lab." Annoyance sparked in Dante. "What kind of company?"

"Oh, you're gonna love this." Gideon gestured with his head. "Come on. Lucan wants you present for input."

Exhaling a long breath, Dante fell in step alongside Gideon. They walked up another twisting length of the corridor, heading for the tech lab, the surveillance and intel hub where the warriors held most of their meetings. As the glass wall of the lab came into view, Dante saw the three other vampire warriors who were like kin to him: Lucan, the Order's dark leader; Nikolai, the brash gearhead of the group; and Tegan, the eldest next to Lucan, and the deadliest inpidual Dante had ever known.

The Order was missing two other members of late. Rio, who had been severely injured by a Rogue ambush a few months ago and remained in the infirmary at the compound, and Conlan, who was killed by Rogues around the same time, in an explosion that took place on one of the city's train lines.

As Dante scanned the assembly of warriors, his gaze lit on one unfamiliar face. Evidently, this was the company Gideon had mentioned. The vampire male had the clean-cut looks of an accountant--right down to the dark suit and white shirt, crisp gray tie, and glossy black oxford shoes. His golden-brown hair was short, impeccably styled, not a strand out of place. Although the male was sizable beneath all that spit and polish, he brought to mind one of those chiseled pretty boys that you see in human magazine ads, hawking designer clothing or expensive cologne.

Scowling, Dante shook his head. "Tell me that's not one of the new warrior candidates."

"That," said Gideon, "is Agent Sterling Chase, of the Boston Darkhaven."

A Darkhaven law-enforcement agent. Well, that made some sense. Certainly explained the vampire's buttoned-up, useless-bureaucrat appearance. "What's he want with us?"

"Information. Some kind of alliance, from what I gather. The Darkhaven has sent him here in the hopes of obtaining the Order's help."

"Our help." Dante scoffed, skeptical. "You gotta be kidding me. It wasn't so long ago that the general population of the Darkhavens were condemning us as lawless vigilantes."

Walking beside him, Gideon glanced over with a smirk. "Dinosaurs who'd outlived their time and ought to be forced into extinction was, I believe, one of the more polite suggestions."

Ironic, considering the populations of those sanctuaries existed directly because of the warriors' continued efforts in fighting the Rogues. In the dark ages of man, long before Dante's eighteenth-century birth in Italy, the Order had acted as sole protector of the vampire race. Then, they were revered as heroes. In the time since, as the warriors hunted down and executed Rogues all over the globe, putting down even the smallest uprisings before they had a chance to take root, the Darkhavens had relaxed into a state of arrogant confidence. Rogue numbers had been few in modern times but were growing again. Meanwhile, the Darkhavens had adopted laws and procedures for dealing with Rogues as mere criminals, foolishly believing that incarceration and rehabilitation were viable solutions to the problem.

Those of the warrior class knew better. They saw the carnage up close and personal, while the rest of the population hid in their sanctuaries, pretending they were safe. Dante and the rest of the Order were the Breed's only true defense, and they chose to act independently--some might argue in defiance of-- impotent Darkhaven law.

"Now they're asking for our help?" Dante fisted his hands at his side, in no mood to deal with Darkhaven politics or the fools who peddled them. "I hope Lucan's called this meeting so we can prove we're savages and kill their friggin' messenger."

Gideon chuckled as the glass doors of the lab whisked open in front of them. "Try not to scare Agent Chase away before he's had a sporting chance to explain why he's here, will you, D?"

Gideon strode inside. Dante followed, giving a nod of respect to Lucan and his brethren as he entered the spacious control room. He turned his gaze on the Darkhaven agent, holding it steady as the civilian vampire rose from his chair at the conference table and looked upon Dante's bloodied, battered condition in barely concealed disgust.

Now he was damn glad he hadn't paused to tidy up before coming in. Hoping to offend further, Dante strolled up to the agent and held out his grimy hand in offered greeting.

"You must be the warrior called Dante," said the low, cultured voice of the Darkhaven representative. He accepted Dante's outstretched hand and clasped it briefly. The agent sniffed almost imperceptibly, fine nostrils flaring as they picked up on Dante's certain stench. "A privilege to meet you. I am Special Investigative Agent Sterling Chase, of the Boston Darkhaven. Senior Special Investigative Agent," he added, smiling. "But I've no wish to stand on ceremony, so please, all of you, feel free to address me as you will."

Dante merely grunted, biting back the choice form of address that leaped to his tongue. Instead, he dropped into the seat next to the agent, holding him in a cool, unwavering stare.

Lucan cleared his throat, all it took for the eldest of the Breed to resume command of the gathering. " Now that we're all here, let's get down to business. Agent Chase has brought some disturbing news from the Boston Darkhaven. There's been a rash of young vampires going missing lately. He'd like the Order' s help in recovering them. I've told him we will."


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