Chase shook his head, muttered an expletive. "Look, that wasn't what I meant--"


"I don't give a shit what you meant," Dante replied, taking a hard left around a city warehouse and peeling down an empty back street. "I don't give a shit what you think about me or my brethren. Let's get that straight right up front, capisce? You're riding along only because Lucan says you're riding along. The best thing you can do through all of this is sit tight, shut up, and stay the hell out of my way."


Anger spiked in the agent's eyes, the heat of it rolling off him in waves. Although Dante could tell Chase was not accustomed to taking orders--especially from someone he might consider a few steps beneath him in the social order of things--the Darkhaven male kept his irritation to himself. He rigged up in the hardware Dante had given him, checking the safety on the pistol and then shrugging into the leather chest holster.


Dante drove into Boston's North End, following a tip Gideon had gotten about a possible rave to take place in one of the area's old buildings. At seven-thirty in the evening, they still had about five hours to kill before any activity around the location would prove out the tip one way or the other. But Dante had never been one to abide that kind of patience. He didn't do sit-and-wait, being more of the mind that death had a harder time catching up to a moving target.


He cut the lights and parked the Porsche down the street from the building they'd be staking out. A breeze kicked up, sending a smatter of leaves and city dust skating across the hood of the vehicle. When it had passed, Dante slid the window down and let the coolness come inside. He took a deep breath, dragging in a lungful of the crisp, late-autumn air.


Something spicy-sweet tickled his nostrils, sending every cell in his body into instant alert. The scent was distant and elusive, nothing manufactured by man, Breed, or any of their collective sciences. It was dusky warm, like cinnamon and vanilla, although to call it such only captured the smallest fraction of its mystique. The scent was something exquisite and singular.


Dante knew it at once. It belonged to the female he'd fed from--the Breedmate he'd so carelessly claimed as his less than twenty-four hours ago.


Tess.


Dante opened the car door and got out.


"What are we doing?"


"You're staying here," he instructed Chase, drawn inexorably toward her, his feet already moving on the pavement.


"What is it?" The agent drew his gun and started to get out of the Porsche like he meant to tail Dante on foot. "Tell me what's happening, damn it. Do you see something out there?"


"Stay in the fucking car, Harvard. And keep your eyes and ears on that building. I've got to check something out."


Dante didn't think anything was going to go down at their posted location in the next few minutes, but if it did, at that moment he didn't really care. All he knew was the scent of that perfume on the night wind and the realization that the female was near.


His female, came the dark reminder from somewhere inside him.


Dante tracked her like a predator. Like all of the Breed, he was gifted with heightened senses, super speed, and animal agility. When they wanted, vampires could move among humans undetected, nothing more than a cool breeze on the back of their necks as they passed them by. Dante used that preternatural skill now, navigating the clogged streets and back alleys, his senses trained on his quarry.


He rounded a corner onto the busy main street, and there she was, across the width of the pavement, on the other side.


Dante went still where he stood, watching as Tess shopped in a lighted open-air market, carefully selecting fresh greens and vegetables. She dropped a yellow squash into her canvas shopping bag, then perused a bin of fruit, stopping to lift a pale cantaloupe to her nose and test its ripeness.


Thinking back on the moment he first saw her in her clinic, even through the haze of his injuries, Dante had recognized that she was beautiful. But tonight, under the strand of small white lights illuminating the produce bins, she looked radiant. Her cheeks were flushed pink, her blue-green eyes sparkling as she smiled over at the old proprietess and complimented her on the quality of the stand's offerings.


Dante moved up his side of the street, keeping to the shadows, unable to take his eyes off her. This close, the scent of her was inebriating and lush. He breathed in through his mouth, letting the spicy sweetness of her sift through his teeth, relishing the way it played across his tongue.


God, but he wanted to taste her again.


He wanted to drink of her.


He wanted to take her. Before he knew what he was doing, Dante stepped down off the curb and into the street. He could have been at her side in half a second, but something strange caught his eye.


He wasn't the only male watching Tess with evident interest.


A human stood in the shelter of a building entrance just a few doors down, peering around the casement at the market in an attempt to not be seen as he observed Tess finishing up her shopping. He didn't fit the stalker mold, with his tall, lean frame and college-boy good looks. Then again, neither had Ted Bundy.


Tess paid for her groceries and wished the old woman a good night. The instant she started to step away from the lighted awnings of the produce stand, the human carefully came out of his hiding place.


Dante seethed at the idea that Tess might meet with harm. He crossed the street in a blink, coming up on the human from behind and stalking within a few yards, ready to tear the man's arms off if he so much as breathed on her.


"Hey, Doc," the man called out, familiarity in his voice. "What's up?"


Tess spun around, gave him a surprised little smile. "Ben, hi! What are you doing here?"


She knew him. Dante pulled back at once, easing off into the flow of pedestrians milling about the shops and restaurants.


"Didn't you get my message at your place? I had business up here, and I thought maybe we could have dinner or something."


Dante watched as the human went up and hugged her, then leaned down to give her a fond kiss on the cheek. The man's adoration was obvious. More than adoration; Dante detected the sharp tang of possessiveness radiating off the human male.


"Are we still on for the dinner exhibit at the museum tomorrow night?" the man asked her.


"Yeah, sure." Tess nodded, surrendering her tote when he reached to take the burden from her. "So, what should I wear to this thing, anyway?"


"Whatever you want. I know you'll be gorgeous, Doc."


Of course. Dante understood it now. This was the boyfriend Tess had called at the clinic last night. The one she had turned to out of terror for what Dante had done to her.


Jealousy curdled in his gut--jealousy he had no true right to feel.


But his blood said different. His veins were alive and burning. The part of him that was not human at all urged him to plow through the crowd and tell the female that she was his, and his alone. Whether she knew it or not. Whether or not either of them willed it.


But a saner part of him lashed a collar around that beast and dragged it back.


Forced it to heel.


He didn't want a Breedmate. Never had, never would.


Dante watched Tess and her boyfriend stroll off ahead of him, their casual chatter all but lost amid other conversations and the general buzz of street noise swirling all around him. He hung back for a minute, blood pounding in his temples as well as other, lower regions of his anatomy.


Turning around, he loped off into the shadows, back to the building where he'd left Harvard on watch. He hoped like hell Gideon's tip about Rogue activity there was going to prove solid--the sooner, the better--because right about now he was itching for a good, bloody fight.


Chapter Eight


The North End stakeout was a bust. There had indeed been a rave at the old, empty building, but the partygoers were just a lot of humans. Not a Rogue in sight, and no sign of any Darkhaven vampires, let alone any misguided Breed youths jacked up on Crimson. Maybe it should have come as a relief that the city was quiet for a few hours, but after a patrol that had netted zero action all night, Dante was a good long way from relieved. He was frustrated, tense, and in severe need of some chill.


The cure for that was simple enough. He knew of about a dozen places topside where he could find a willing female with juicy veins and a warm, welcoming pair of thighs, and after dropping Chase off at his Darkhaven residence, Dante drove to an after-hours nightclub and parked the Porsche at the curb. He dialed the compound on his cell phone and gave a quick recap of the night's nonevents to Gideon.


"Look at the bright side, D. You went seven full hours without killing the Darkhaven agent," Gideon remarked slyly. "That's an impressive benchmark in itself. We've got a pool going over here about how long the guy's going to last. For what it's worth, my money's on nineteen hours, tops."


"Yeah?" Dante chuckled. "Put me down for seven and a half."


"That bad, eh?"


"I suppose it could have been worse. At least Harvard knows how to follow orders, even if he seems the type to prefer being in charge."


Dante glanced in his side mirror, distracted by a wedge of pale female belly and half-exposed, leather miniskirt-clad hips that were currently snaking around the left taillight of the vehicle. Perched on steep platform heels, she rolled toward the closed window with a practiced strut that suggested she was a pro. When she leaned down and shot him a glimpse of fleshy tits, a street-hardened smile, and heroin-vacant eyes, she removed all doubt.


"Lookin' for some company, handsome?" she mouthed at the darkened glass, unable to see who she was propositioning and evidently not caring, based on the quality of his ride.


Dante ignored her. Even a live-for-the-moment libertine like himself had certain standards. He hardly noticed as the prostitute shrugged, dejected, and moved on up the street. "I need you to run a search on something for me, Gid." "You got it," he said, the clack of a keyboard being drafted into action sounding in the background. " What do you need?"


"Can you find anything on some kind of museum event taking place tomorrow night? A dinner or something like that?"


It took only a second for Gideon to come back with a reply. "I've got a social-pages listing for a chichi patrons' dinner exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. Tomorrow night, seven-thirty."


That had to be the event Tess and her boyfriend were talking about at the produce stand. Their date.


Not that he should care what the female was doing, or with whom. It shouldn't put his blood on a hard boil to think of another man touching her, kissing her. Burying himself inside her body.


It shouldn't register on his fury meter at all, but damn if it didn't.


"What's going down at the MFA?" Gideon asked, breaking into his thoughts. "You got a lead on something over there?"


"No. Nothing like that. Just curious, that's all."


"What, you're suddenly into the arts?" The warrior chuckled. "Jesus, maybe a few hours with Harvard is having an adverse effect on you. Never figured you for the highbrow shit."


Dante wasn't a total cultureless heathen, but he wasn't in any frame of mind to explain himself right now.


"Forget it," he all but snapped into the cell phone.


His irritation was only slightly improved when he noticed he was being sized up again. This time it was two pretty females who looked like they'd come in from the suburbs for a good time. College girls, he was guessing, based on the fresh faces, perky twenty-something bods, and torn, faux-vintage designer jeans. They were giggling and trying to act unimpressed as they approached the car on their way into the club.


"So, where are we, D? You on your way back to base now?"


"No," he said, voice low as he cut the engine and let his gaze trail the women as they passed. "Night's still young. I think I'll stop off for a quick bite first. Maybe two."


Sterling Chase prowled his Darkhaven residence like a caged animal, edgy and anxious. Although the night hadn't exactly been a success by any measure, he had to admit a certain exhilaration his first time out on his mission. He didn't care much for the arrogant, antagonistic warrior he'd been partnered with, but he reminded himself that his purpose in seeking the Order's help far outweighed any of the bullshit he would likely be subjected to by Dante or his brethren these next few weeks.


He'd been home for a couple of hours now. A couple more and it would be daybreak, not that he would feel much like sleeping.


At the moment, he felt like talking to someone.


Of course, the first to come to mind was Elise. But at this hour she would be retired to her quarters, preparing for bed. It didn't take much for him to picture her seated at her delicate little vanity, probably nude beneath yards of gauzy white silk and brushing out her long blond hair. Her lavender eyes were likely closed as she hummed absently to herself --a habit she'd had since he'd first met her, and one that only endeared her to him all the more.


She was fragile and sweet, a widow going on five years now. Elise would never pair with another; in his heart of hearts, he knew that. And part of him was glad for her refusal to love again--the right of every Breedmate who lost her beloved--because while it meant he would live in the misery of wanting her, he would not have to accept the even more crushing blow of seeing her bonded to another male.


But without a male of the Breed to nourish her with the time-altering gift of his blood, Elise, born human like every other Breedmate, would one day grow old and die. This was the thing that saddened him the most. He might never truly have her, but it was a certainty that one day, probably no more than a scant sixty or seventy years from now--a blink of time, to those of his kind--he would lose her completely.


Perhaps it was that idea that made him want so badly to spare her every hurt that he could.

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