He was Dante's mentor, a true friend, if Dante could be so bold as to claim the formidable warrior as such.

But that didn't mean Lucan wouldn't tear a hole in him if he felt Dante needed it.

"I could give a shit for Darkhaven PR, same as you," Lucan said, the cadence of his deep voice measured and cool. "But the news of this drug disturbs me. We need to find out who's sourcing it and sever that chain. It's too important to leave it to Darkhaven involvement. If keeping a lid on this operation for the time being so that we can get the situation under control, on our terms, means letting Agent Chase play warrior for a few nights, then that's the price we have to pay."

When Dante opened his mouth to voice a further argument against the idea, Lucan arched a black brow and cut him off before he could get the first word out.

"I've decided that you will be the one to pair up with Agent Chase on patrol."

Dante bit his tongue, knowing Lucan would abide no argument in this now.

"I choose you because you're the best one for the job, Dante. Tegan would probably kill the agent outright, just because he annoyed him. And Niko, while a capable warrior, does not have your years of experience on the street. Keep the Darkhaven agent out of trouble, but don't lose sight of the true goal: exterminating our enemies. I know you won't let me down. You never have. I'll contact Chase and let him know that his tour begins tomorrow night."

Dante gave a low nod of acceptance, not trusting himself to speak when outrage was pouring through his veins. Lucan clapped him on the shoulder as if to say he understood Dante's simmering anger, then headed out of the lab. Dante could only stand there for a moment, his jaw clamped so tight his molars burned with the pressure.

Had he really walked into the compound thinking that this night couldn't get any worse?

Holy hell, had he been wrong about that.

After everything he'd been through the past twelve hours, culminating with this unwanted babysitting assignment, he was going to have to seriously recalibrate his idea of Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition.

Chapter Seven

"Here you go, Mrs. Corelli." Tess lifted a plastic cat carrier over the reception counter, passing the growling, hissing white Persian back to its owner. "Angel's not too happy right now, but he should be feeling back up to snuff in a couple of days. I wouldn't let him outside until the sutures have dissolved, though. Not that he's going to be feeling like much of a Romeo anymore."

The elderly woman clucked her tongue. "For months now, all up and down my street, what do I see? Little Angels running around. I tell you, I had no idea! And my poor smoochie-puss, coming home every night looking like a prizefighter, that pretty face of his torn up and bloody."

"Well, he won't have a lot of interest in fighting anymore. Or in his other apparent pastime. You've done the right thing by having him neutered, Mrs. Corelli."

"My husband would like to know if you'd do the same for our granddaughter's current boyfriend. Ay, but that boy is a wild one. Nothing but trouble and he's only fifteen!"

Tess laughed. "My practice is limited to animals, I'm afraid."

"More's the pity. Now, what do I owe you, dear?"

Tess watched the elderly woman dig out her checkbook with chapped, arthritic hands. Even though she was well past retirement age, Mrs. Corelli cleaned houses five days a week, Tess knew. It was hard work, and the wages were meager, but since her husband's disability pay had dried up a few years ago, Mrs. Corelli had become the sole provider for her household. Whenever Tess felt tempted to sulk because she was strapped and struggling, she thought about this woman and how she soldiered on with dignity and grace.

"We're actually running a special on services right now, Mrs. Corelli. So your grand total for today is twenty dollars."

"Are you sure, dear?" At Tess's insistent nod, the woman paid the clinic fee, then tucked the pet carrier under her arm and headed for the exit. "Thank you, Doctor Tess."

"You're very welcome."

As the door closed behind her client, Tess glanced to the clock on the waiting-room wall. Just after four. The day had seemed to drag on endlessly, no doubt due to the strange night she'd had. She had considered canceling her appointments and staying home, but she'd marshaled herself and worked the full day. One more appointment, and then she could get out of here.

Although why she was so eager to race home to her empty apartment, she had no idea. She felt edgy and exhausted at the same time, her entire system buzzing with an odd kind of disquiet.

"You have a message from Ben," Nora announced as she came out of one of the dog-grooming rooms. "It's on a sticky note by the phone. Something about a fancy art thing tomorrow night? He said you mentioned you'd go with him a few weeks ago, but he wanted to make sure you hadn't forgotten."

"Oh, shit. The MFA dinner exhibit is tomorrow night?"

Nora gave her a wry look. "Guess you forgot. Well, it sounds like fun anyway. Oh, and your four-twenty vaccination called to cancel. One of the girls called in sick at the diner, so now she's working a double shift. She wanted to reschedule for next week."

Tess gathered her long hair off her neck and rubbed the tight muscles at her nape. "That's fine. Will you call her back and rebook the appointment for me?"

"Already did. You feeling okay?"

"Yeah. It was a long night, that's all."

"So I heard. Ben told me what happened. Fell asleep at your desk again, eh?" Nora laughed, shaking her head. "And Ben getting worried, calling the cops to look in on you? I'm glad he didn't get into hot water with them about that stray cat he picked up."

"Me too." Ben had promised when he dropped her off at home that he'd turn right around and pick up Shiva from the clinic so he could take the animal back to its owners, like the police had instructed him to do. He wouldn't promise that another rescue attempt was out of the question, however. For what wasn't the first time, Tess wondered if his tenacious zeal, as well-intentioned as it was, might one day be his downfall.

"You know," she said to her assistant, "I still don't understand how I could have accidentally speed-dialed his number in my sleep... "

"Huh. Maybe subconsciously you wanted to call him. Hey, maybe I should try that one night. Think he 'd ride out to my rescue too?" At Tess's eye roll, Nora held up her hands in surrender. "I'm just saying! He seems like a really great guy. Good-looking, smart, charming--and let's not forget totally into you. I don't know why you won't give him a fighting chance."

Tess had given him a chance. More than one, in fact. And even though the problems she'd had with him seemed to be a thing of the past--he'd vowed time and again that they were--she was wary of becoming involved again beyond anything but friendship. Actually, she was beginning to think she might not be cut out for the whole relationship thing with anyone.

"Ben is a nice guy," she said finally, picking up his message and stuffing it into the pocket of her khakis under her long white lab coat. "But not everyone is all that they seem."

With Mrs. Corelli's check topping off the day's receipts, Tess stamped it for the bank and started preparing a deposit slip.

"You want me to run that out for you on my way home?" Nora asked.

"No. I'll do it. Since we're clear of appointments now, I think I'm going to call it a day." Tess zipped the deposit slip into the leather receipts envelope. When she looked up, Nora was gaping at her. "What? What's wrong?"

"I don't know. Who the hell are you, and what have you done with my workaholic boss?"

Tess hesitated, sudden guilt about several days' worth of filing yet to be done making her second-guess the idea of quitting early--or rather, as it actually happened to be, on time.

"I'm kidding!" Nora said, already racing around the desk to herd Tess out into the small lobby. "Go home. Relax. Do something fun, for crissake."

Tess nodded, so grateful to have someone like Nora in her corner. "Thanks. I don't know what I'd do without you."

"Just remember that at my next pay review."

It took only a couple of minutes for Tess to ditch her lab coat, grab her purse, and shut down the computer in her office. She left the clinic and walked out into the afternoon sunshine, unable to recall the last time she'd been able to quit work and stroll to the T station before dark. Enjoying the sudden freedom--her every sense seeming more alive and attuned than ever before--Tess took her sweet time, making it to the bank just before they were closing and then catching the subway home to the North End.

Her apartment was a tidy but unimpressive one-bedroom, one-bath unit, close enough to the expressway that she'd learned to consider the steady hiss of flowing, high-speed traffic to be her own brand of white noise. Not even the frequent horn blasts of impatient drivers or the squeal of vehicle brakes on the streets below her place ever really bothered her. Until now.

Tess jogged up the two flights of stairs to her apartment, her head ringing with the din of street noise. She shut herself inside and sagged against the door, dropping her purse and keys onto an antique sewing machine table that she'd bought cheap and reincarnated into a vestibule sideboard. Kicking off her brown leather loafers, Tess padded into the living room to check her voice mail and think about dinner.

She had another message here from Ben. He was going to be in the North End that evening and hoped she wouldn't mind if he dropped by to check in on her, maybe head out to one of the neighborhood's pubs for a beer together.

He sounded so hopeful, so harmlessly friendly, that Tess's finger hovered over the call-back button for a long moment. She didn't want to encourage him, and it was bad enough she'd promised to be his date for the Boston MFA's modern-art exhibit.

Which was tomorrow night, she reminded herself again, wondering if there was any way for her to wiggle out of it. She wanted to, but she wouldn't. Ben had bought the tickets specifically because he knew she loved sculpture, and the works of some of her favorite artists would be on display in limited engagement.

It was a very thoughtful gift, and backing out now would only hurt Ben. She would attend the exhibit with him, but this would be the last time they did the couple thing, even just as friends.

With that matter as good as resolved in her mind, Tess flipped on her television, found an old rerun of Friends, then wandered into her galley kitchen in search of food. She went straight for the freezer, her usual source of sustenance.

Which orange box of frozen boredom would it be tonight?

Tess absently grabbed the nearest one and tore it open. As the cellophane-covered tray clattered onto her counter, she frowned. God, she was pathetic. Was this really how she intended to spend her rare evening out of the office?

Do something fun, Nora had said.

Tess was pretty sure nothing she had on her personal schedule right now would constitute fun. Not to Nora, anyway, and not to Tess herself either.

At nearly twenty-six years old, was this what she'd let her life become?

While her bitter feelings didn't stem merely from the prospect of bland rice and rubbery chicken, Tess eyed the frozen brick of food with contempt. When was the last time she'd actually cooked a nice meal from scratch, with her own two hands?

When was the last time she'd done something good just for herself?

Too damn long, she decided, and swept the stuff off the counter and into the trash.

Senior Special Investigative Agent Sterling Chase had reported to the warriors' compound promptly at dusk. To his credit he'd lost the suit and tie, opting for a graphite-colored knit shirt, black denim jeans, and lug-soled black leather boots. He'd even covered his light hair with a dark skullcap. Dressed like he was now, Dante could almost forget the guy was civilian. Too bad no amount of camo could hide the fact that Harvard was, as of this very hour, Dante's official pain in the ass.

"If we ever need to knock over a bank, at least I know who to go to for wardrobe tips," he said to the Darkhaven agent as he pulled on a leather trench coat loaded down with all manner of hand-to-hand weapons, and the two of them made their way to one of the Order's fleet vehicles in the compound's garage.

"I won't hold my breath waiting for your call," Chase shot back drolly, taking in the prime collection of machinery. "Looks like you folks do all right without resorting to grand larceny."

The hangar-style garage held dozens of choice cars, SUVs, and cycles, some vintage, some current makes, every one of them a high-performance thing of beauty. Dante led him to a brand-new basalt-black Porsche Cayman S and clicked the remote locks open. The two of them climbed into the coupe, Chase looking around the sleek interior with clear appreciation as Dante fired up the engine, hit the code to open the hangar door, then let the sweet black beast begin its stealth prowl out into the night.

"The Order lives very well," Chase remarked from next to Dante in the Porsche's dimly lit cockpit. He exhaled an amused chuckle. "You know, a lot of the Darkhaven population believes that you are crude mercenaries, still living like lawless animals in underground caves."

"That so," Dante murmured, glaring out at the twilit stretch of road ahead of him. With his right hand, he flipped open the center console and pulled out a leather satchel containing a small cache of weapons. He dropped the lot of them--sheathed knives, a length of thick chain, and a holstered semiautomatic pistol--into the agent's lap. "Suit up, Harvard. I assume you can figure out which end of that tricked-out Beretta 92FS is the one you're gonna need to point at the bad guys. You know, seeing how you're from the rarefied halls of the Darkhavens and all."


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