He loved her now, as always.


It shamed him, how much she affected him. Just thinking of her, his skin felt tight and too warm. She made him burn inside, and she could never know the truth of that. She would despise him for it, he was sure.


But that didn't stop the clawing itch to be near her.


To be naked with her, even just once.


Chase stopped his pacing and dropped down onto the large sofa in his den. He sat back, thighs spread, head back on his shoulders, staring up at the tall white ceiling some ten feet above him.


She was there, in that bedroom over this very space.


If he breathed deeply enough, he could catch the faint rose and heather scent of her. Chase sucked in a long draft of air. Hunger coiled in him, stretching his fangs from his gums. He licked his lips, almost able to imagine the taste of her.


Sweet torture, that.


He imagined her padding barefoot across the carpeted floor of her room, unlacing the ties of her flimsy nightgown. Letting the silk fall near the bed as she climbed onto cool sheets and lay there, uncovered, uninhibited, her nipples like rosebuds against the paleness of her skin.


Chase's throat was desert dry. His pulse kicked into a hard drum, blood flowing hot through his veins. His cock was stiff within the confinement of his black jeans. He reached for the ache of his sex, palming his erection over the thick fabric and straining buttoned fly. Stroking himself the way Elise never would.


He rubbed more urgently, but it only made the need worse.


He would never stop wanting...


"Jesus Christ," he muttered, disgusted with himself for his weakness.


He yanked his hand away and got up with a hiss of anger, denying himself even so much as the fantasy of bedding his perfect, unattainable Elise.


Heat licked along the length of Dante's bare legs. It climbed higher, over his hips and torso, snaking up his spine and around his shoulders. Relentless, consuming, the heat pressed deeper, like an unstoppable wave crashing over him in slow-motion torment. It burned ever stronger, growing ever hotter, all but engulfing him.


He couldn't move, no longer in control of his limbs or even his own thoughts.


All he knew was the fire.


And the fact that it was killing him.


Flames were twisting all around him now, smoke churning black, searing his eyes and scorching his throat with every futile, gasping breath he tried to take.


No use.


He was trapped.


He felt his skin blistering. Heard the sickening crackle of his clothing--his hair too--catching fire while he registered it all in stark, debilitating horror.


There was no way out.


Death was coming.


He felt the dark hand descend on him, pushing him down, toward a vortex of seething, endless nothing --


"No!"


Dante came awake with a jolt, every muscle tensed to fight. He tried to move, but something held him down. A slight weight draped across his thighs. Another lying limply across his chest. Both females stirred on the bed, one of them making a purring noise as she nestled against him and stroked his clammy skin.


"What'sa matter, baby?"


"Get off me," he muttered, his voice raw and thready in his parched throat.


Dante extricated himself from the tangle of naked limbs and put his bare feet on the floor of the unfamiliar apartment. He could hardly catch his breath yet, his heart still hammering hard. He felt fingers running up the small of his back. Irritated by the unwanted touch, he got up off the sagging mattress and began searching for his clothes in the dark.


"Don't go," one of them complained. "Mia and I aren't finished with you yet."


He didn't answer. All he wanted right now was to be moving. He'd been still for too long. Long enough for death to come looking for him.


"You okay?" asked the other girl. "You have a bad dream or something?"


Bad dream, he thought wryly. Far from it.


He'd been seeing the same vision--living it in vivid detail--for as long as he could remember.


It was a glimpse of the future.


His own death.


He knew every agonizing second of his final few moments of life; all that remained unanswered was the why, the where, and the when of it. He even knew who to credit for the curse of his vision.


The human woman who bore him in Italy some 229 years ago had seen not only her own death but that of her beloved mate, the Darkhaven vampire who had been Dante's scholarly, aristocratic father. Just as she'd envisioned it, that gentle female met a tragic demise, drowning in an ocean riptide after she' d swum out to pull a child from the same disaster. Dante's father, she had predicted, would be slain by a jealous political rival. Some eighty years after her death, outside a crowded meeting hall in the Rome Darkhaven, Dante had lost his father just as his mother had described.


His mother's unique Breedmate gift had passed down to her sole offspring, as was often the case among the Breed, and now Dante was the one damned with death visions.


"Come back to bed," one of the young women pleaded from behind him. "Come on, don't be such a drag."


Yanking on his clothes and boots, Dante strolled back over to the bed. The females pawed at him as he came near, their movements drowsy and fumbling, their minds still sluggish from the thrall of his earlier bite. He had sealed their wounds right after he'd fed, but there remained one thing to do before he could make his escape. Dante reached out and put his palm against the brow of one girl, then the other, scrubbing all recollection of this night from their thoughts.


If only he could do the same for himself, he thought, his throat still dry with the taste of smoke and ash and death.


Chapter Nine


"Relax, Tess." Ben's hand came to rest at the small of her back, his head bent low near her ear. "In case you hadn't noticed, this is a cocktail reception, not a funeral."


Which was a good thing, Tess thought, glancing down at her garnet-colored dress. Although the simple, resale-shop halter was a favorite, she was the only one wearing color amid the general sea of black. She felt out of place, conspicuous. Not that she was used to fitting in among other people. She never had, not from the time she was a little girl. She was always... different. Always apart from the rest of the world in ways she didn't fully understand and had learned it better not to explore. Instead, she tried to fit in--pretended she did--like now, standing in a crowded room of strangers. The urge to bolt from the crush of it all was strong.


Actually, more and more, Tess was feeling like she was standing at the front of a rising storm. As if unseen forces were gathering all around her, shoving her out onto a bare ledge. She thought if she looked down at her feet, she might find nothing but chasm beneath her. A steep fall with no end in sight.


She rubbed her neck, feeling a dull sort of ache in the tendons below her ear.


"You okay?" Ben asked. "You've been quiet all night."


"Have I? I'm sorry. I don't mean to be."


"Are you having a good time?"


She nodded, forcing a smile. "This is an amazing exhibit, Ben. The program says it's a private patrons' event, so how did you manage to get tickets?"


"Ah, I've got a few connections around town." He shrugged, then downed the last of his champagne. " Someone owed me a favor. And it's not what you're thinking," he said, his tone chiding as he took her empty soda glass from her hand. "I know the bartender, and he knows one of the girls who works in events here at the museum. Knowing how much you enjoy sculpture, a few months ago I put a bug in his ear about scoring me a couple of extra tickets for this reception."


"And the favor?" Tess prompted, suspicious. She knew that Ben often mingled with some questionable people. "What did you have to do for this guy?"


"His car was in the shop and I loaned him my van one night for a wedding he had to work. That's it, all on the up and up. Nothing shady." Ben gave her one of his melting grins. "Hey, I made you a promise, didn't I?"


Tess nodded vaguely.


"Speaking of the bar, how about I refresh our drinks--another mineral water with lime for the lady?"


"Yes, thank you."


As Ben wended through the crowd, Tess resumed her perusal of the art collection on special display around the grand ballroom. There were hundreds of pieces of sculpture, representing thousands of years of history, all encased in tall Plexiglas kiosks.


Tess came up behind a group of blond, bronzed, bejeweled society women who were blocking a case of Italian terra-cotta figurines and chattering about so-and-so's botched brow lift and Mrs. Somebody-or-other's recent affair with a country-club tennis pro less than half her age. Tess hovered in back of them, sincerely trying not to listen as she attempted to get a closer look at the elegant sculpture of Cornacchini's Sleeping Endymion.


She felt like an impostor, both as Ben's date tonight and among these people at the museum patrons' event. This was more his crowd than hers. Born and reared in Boston, Ben had grown up around art museums and theater, while her cultural background had been limited to county fairs and the local cinema. What she knew about art was modest at best, but her love of sculpture had always been something of an escape for her, particularly in those troubled days back home in rural Illinois. Back then, she'd been a different person, and Teresa Dawn Culver knew a few things about impostors. Her stepfather had made sure of that. From all appearances, he'd seemed a model citizen: successful, kind, moral. He was none of those things. But he was dead almost a decade now, her estranged mother recently dead as well. As for Tess, she had left that painful past nine years and half a country behind her.


If only she could leave the memories there too.


The awful knowledge of what she'd done...


Tess refocused her attention on the handsome lines of Endymion. As she studied the eighteenth-century terra-cotta sculpture, the fine hairs at the back of her neck began to tickle. A flush of heat washed over her--just the briefest skate of warmth, but enough to make her look around for the source. She found nothing. The pack of gossiping women moved on, and then it was only Tess at the display.


She peered into the glass case once more, letting the beauty of the artist's work transport her away from her private anxieties to a place of peace and comfort.


"Exquisite."


A deep voice tinged with a faint, elegant accent drew her head up with a start. There, on the other side of the clear kiosk, stood a man. Tess found herself looking into whiskey-colored eyes fringed with thick, inky-black lashes. If she thought she stuck out like a sore thumb at this ritzy event, she had nothing on this guy.


Six and a half feet of darkness stared at her with hawkish eyes and a stern, almost menacing air of confidence. He was a study in black, from the glossy waves of his hair, to the broad lines of his leather coat and body-hugging knit shirt, to his long legs, which appeared to be outfitted in black fatigues.


Despite his inappropriately casual attire, he held himself with a confidence that made him seem like he owned the place, projecting an air of power even in his stillness. People stared at him from all corners of the room, not with scorn or disapproval but with a deference--a respectful wariness--that Tess couldn't help feeling herself. She was gaping, she realized, and quickly glanced back into the case to avoid the heat of his unwavering gaze.


"It's--it's beautiful, yes," she stammered, hoping like hell she didn't look as flustered as she felt.


Her heart was racing inexplicably, and that strange tingly ache was back in the side of her neck. She touched the place below her ear where her pulse now throbbed, trying to rub it away. The sensation only got worse, like a buzzing in her blood. She felt twitchy and nervous, in need of air. When she started to move on to another case of sculpture, the man came around the display, subtly stepping into her path.


"Cornacchini is a master," he said, that silky growl rolling over the name like the purr of a big cat. "I don't know all of his works, but my parents were great patrons of the arts back home in Italy."


Italian. So that explained his gorgeous accent. Since she couldn't manage a smooth escape now, Tess nodded politely. "Have you been in the States long?"


"Yes." A smile pulled at the corner of his sensual mouth. "I've been here for a very long time. I am called Dante," he added, extending his large hand to her.


"Tess." She accepted his greeting, nearly gasping as his fingers wrapped around hers in a moment of contact that was nothing short of electric. Good Lord, the guy was gorgeous. Not model pretty but rugged and masculine, with a square-cut jaw and lean cheekbones. His full lips were enough to make any one of the collagen-plumped socialites at the reception weep with envy. In fact, his was the kind of profanely masculine face that artists had been trying to capture in clay and marble for centuries. His only visible flaw was a jag in the otherwise straight bridge of his nose.


A fighter? Tess wondered, some of her interest fading already. She had no use for violent men, even if they looked and sounded like fallen angels.


She offered him a pleasant smile and started to walk away. "Enjoy the exhibit."


"Wait. Why are you running away?" His hand came to rest on her forearm, only the slightest brush of contact, but it stilled her. "Are you afraid of me, Tess?"


"No." What a strange question for him to ask. "Should I be?"


Something flickered in his eyes, then disappeared. "No, I don't want that. I want you to stay, Tess."


He kept saying her name, and every time it rolled off his tongue, she felt some of her anxiety melt away. "Look, I'm, uh... I came here with someone," she blurted out, reaching for the easiest excuse that came to her.


"Your boyfriend?" he asked, then turned his shrewd gaze unerringly toward the crowded bar where Ben had gone. "You don't want him to come back and see us talking?"

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***