Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Fifteen)

Tess double-checked the last figure on her computer monitor, making sure the amount was correct before she clicked the button to complete the funds transfer. The overdue clinic bills were paid now, but her savings account was more than a thousand dollars lighter. And next month, the bills would start all over again.

"Hey, Tess?" Nora appeared in the open doorway and gave a hesitant rap on the jamb. "Sorry to interrupt, but it's almost six o'clock and I have to take off to study for an exam tomorrow. You want me to lock up?"

"Okay," Tess said, rubbing at her temples, where twin knots of stress had begun to settle. "Thanks, Nora. Have a good night." Nora looked at her for a long moment, then down at the stack of bills on the desk. "Everything all right?"

"Yeah." Tess attempted a reassuring smile. "Yes, everything is fine."

"I saw the notice from the building landlord today. Rent's going up after the first of the year, huh?"

Tess nodded. "Just eight percent."

It wasn't much, actually, but she could barely cover the clinic lease as it was. The increase would likely be the final nail in the coffin, unless she started charging more for services. That would probably cost her half of her clients, which would put her right back in the hole. The only reasonable alternative was to close the clinic, pull up stakes, and move on to something else.

Tess wasn't afraid of that option; she was used to moving around. Sometimes she wondered if it wasn 't easier for her to start over than to really dig in somewhere. She was still searching for that soft place to fall. Maybe she would never find it.

"Look, Tess, I've, um, been meaning to talk to you about something. My classes are getting pretty intense this last semester, and I really need to buckle down." She hesitated, lifting her shoulder. "You know I love working here, but I'm going to have to scale back my hours."

Tess nodded, accepting. "Okay."

"It's just that between the clinic and studying, I hardly have time to breathe anymore, you know? My dad's getting remarried in a few weeks, so I also have to think about moving out of his place. Anyway, my mom really wants me to come back to California after I graduate in the spring… "

"It's okay. Really, I understand," Tess said, relieved in a small way.

She'd shared with Nora some of the business's financial struggles, and while Nora had insisted on riding it out with her, Tess still felt responsible. In fact, there were times she felt as though she was keeping the clinic afloat more for her clients and Nora than for herself. She was good at her work–she knew that–but she couldn't help feeling that this new life she had made was just another form of hiding. From her past, certainly, but also from the here and now. From something that she was afraid to examine too closely.

You're always running away, Tess.

Dante's words from last night replayed in her mind. She'd been reflecting on what he said, knowing that his observation of her was right. Like him, she often felt that if she just kept moving, kept running, she might–just might–be able to survive. She didn't fear eventual death, though. Her demon was always close by her side.

Deep down, she knew that what she was really running from was herself.

Tess straightened a stack of papers on her desk, pulling herself back to the conversation. "When were you thinking of cutting back your hours?"

"Well, as soon as you can let me, I guess. It kills me that you've been bankrolling my paycheck from your personal funds, anyway."

"You let me worry about that," Tess said, her words interrupted by the jangle of bells on the clinic's front entrance. Nora glanced over her shoulder. "That must be UPS with our supply order. I'll run out and grab it before I go."

She jogged away and Tess heard muffled conversation in the reception area. Then Nora was back again, a flush of pink in her cheeks.

"It's definitely not UPS in the lobby," she said, keeping her voice low as if she didn't want to be overheard. "It's an absolute god."

Tess laughed. "What?"

"Are you up for a walk-in? Because this amazing-looking guy is waiting out there with a pitiful little dog."

"Is it an emergency?"

Nora shrugged. "I don't think so. No obvious blood or trauma, but the guy is pretty insistent. He asked for you. And did I mention he's drop-dead gorgeous?"

"You did," Tess said, standing up from her desk and coming around to put on her white lab coat. A tingle kicked up below her ear, an odd prickling sensation like the one she'd felt at the museum exhibit and again last night, when she was standing next to Dante at the coffee shop. "Tell him I'll be right out, please."

"No problem." Nora hooked her hair behind her ear, smoothed her low-cut sweater, and trotted off.

It was him. Tess knew it was Dante, even before she heard his voice rumble in the lobby. She found herself smiling into her hand, weathering a wild current of excitement to think that he had sought her out after the embarrassing way she'd left things with him last night in the park.

Oh, God. This jolt of hormones was bad, bad news. She wasn't the type to go all giddy over a man, but Dante did something to her that she'd never felt before.

"Get a grip," she whispered to herself as she headed out of her office and into the hallway that opened onto the lobby area.

Dante stood at the tall reception station, holding a small bundle in his arms. Nora was leaning across the countertop to pet the little dog, cooing adoringly and flashing Dante a nice shot of her cleavage. Tess couldn't blame Nora for flirting. Dante just had that effect on a woman; not even Tess was immune to his dark allure.

His eyes had locked on to her the instant she entered the room, and if Tess wanted to act cool and unaffected, she was probably failing miserably. Her smile wouldn't dim, and her fingers trembled a bit as she brought her hand up to the side of her neck, where the queer tingling seemed to gather the strongest.

"This must be Harvard," she said, glancing to the rather emaciated-looking terrier mix in Dante's arms. "When I said I wanted to meet him, I guess I didn't expect it would be so soon."

Dante frowned. "Is this a bad time?"

"No. No, it's fine. I'm just… surprised, that's all. You keep surprising me."

"You guys know each other?" Nora was gaping at Tess like she wanted to high-five her.

"We, uh… we met a couple of nights ago," Tess stammered. "At the museum reception. Last night we ran into each other again in the North End."

"I was out of line," Dante said, looking at her as if they were the only people in the room. "I didn't mean to upset you last night, Tess."

She waved off his concern, wishing she could forget the whole thing. "It was nothing. I wasn't upset, really. You didn't do anything wrong. I should be the one apologizing to you for running off like I did."

Nora's gaze bounced between the two of them, as if the tension Tess felt from being near Dante was palpable to the other woman as well. "Maybe you two would like to be alone–"

"No," Tess answered abruptly, at the same time that Dante calmly said, "Yes."

Nora hesitated for a second, then turned and gathered her coat and handbag from a hook behind her desk. "I'll just… um, see you in the morning, Tess."

"Yeah, all right. Good luck with your studying."

With her back to Dante, Nora looked at Tess and silently mouthed the words Oh, my God! as she started off for the back exit, where her car was parked. A few seconds later, the low rumble of an engine sounded, then faded away as Nora took off.

Until now, Tess had been so distracted by Dante's presence, she'd hardly noticed the condition of the dog. Now she couldn't help feeling a wash of pity for the animal. Its dull brown eyes were half closed, and a faint but audible respiratory wheeze sawed out of its lungs. On sight alone, Tess could tell that the dog was in need of care.

"Do you mind if I take a look at him?" she asked, glad to have something to focus on aside from Dante and the awareness that seemed to crackle between them. At his nod of agreement, Tess took a stethoscope out of her lab-coat pocket and hooked it around her neck. "When's the last time Harvard had veterinary care?"

Dante gave a vague shrug. "I'm not sure."

Tess gently took the dog from Dante's arms. "Come on. Let's have a closer look in one of the exam rooms."

Dante followed in watchful silence, coming to stand right beside her as Tess placed the trembling animal onto the stainless steel table. She put the scope under the dog's chest and listened to the rapid beat of his heart. There was a pretty significant murmur, and his respiration was definitely off, as she suspected. She felt carefully around his pronounced rib cage and made a note of the lack of elasticity in his flea-ridden fur. "Has Harvard been sleeping a lot lately? Lethargic?"

"I don't know."

Although Tess hardly noticed Dante moving, their arms brushed against each other, his solid, muscled body like a warm, protective wall beside her. And he smelled incredible–something spicy and dark that probably cost a fortune. She drew in a deep breath of him, then bent to inspect the dog's mite-infested ears. "Have you noticed a loss of appetite or a problem keeping food and water down?"

"I couldn't say."

Tess lifted the terrier's lips and checked the color of his diseased gums. "Can you tell me when was Harvard's last vaccination?" "I don't know."

"Do you know anything about this animal?" It sounded accusatory, but she couldn't bite it back.

"I haven't had it very long," Dante said. "I know it needs care. Do you think you can help, Tess?"

She frowned, knowing it was going to take a lot to reverse everything the dog suffered from. "I'll do what I can, but I can't make any promises."

Tess reached for a ballpoint that was lying on the countertop behind her and fumbled it. The pen dropped to the floor at her feet, and before she could bend down to pick it up, Dante was there. He caught the Bic in nimble fingers and held it out to her. As she took it from him, she felt his thumb skim over the back of her hand. She drew her arm against her body in an abrupt motion.

"Why do I make you so nervous?"

She shot him a look that probably broadcast that very thing. "You don't."

"Are you sure? You seem… agitated."

She was, actually. She hated to see neglected animals such as this one, which looked like a poster child for the SPCA. And stress over everything that was going wrong in her life right now was also weighing her down.

But running undercurrent to all of that was the disquiet she felt just being in the same room with this man. God help her, but when her gaze lit on his, she was blasted with a very vivid, very real impression of the two of them naked together, limbs entwined, bodies moist and glistening, arching into each other on a bed of scarlet silk sheets.

She could feel his large hands caressing her, his mouth pressing hot and hungry against her neck. She could feel his sex sliding in and out of her, as his teeth grazed the sensitive spot below her ear, which throbbed now like the heavy beat of drums.

She was held suspended in his smoky amber eyes, seeing all of it as clearly as if it was memory. Or a future that danced just beyond her grasp…

With effort, Tess managed to blink, severing the strange connection.

"Excuse me," she gasped, and hurried out of the room, awash in confusion.

She closed the door behind her and took a couple of quick paces down the hallway. Leaning back against the wall, she closed her eyes and tried to catch her breath. Her heart was racing, pounding against her sternum. Her very bones seemed to vibrate like a tuning fork.

Her skin was warm to the touch, heat blooming around her neck and in her breasts, and down, in her core. Everything in her seemed to have awakened in his presence, all that was female and elemental coming online at once, reaching out for something. Reaching out for him.

God, what was wrong with her?

She was losing it. If she was smart, she'd leave Dante and his sickly pet in the exam room and hightail it out of here right now.

Oh, sure. That would be really professional. Very adult. So he'd kissed her once before. All he'd done now was brush fingertips with her; she was the one overreacting. Tess took a deep breath, then another, willing her hyperactive physiology to calm down. When she was finally in control again, she turned around and went back to the exam room, running through a dozen lame reasons for why she felt the need to run away.

"I'm sorry about that," she said as she opened the door. "I thought I heard the phone–"

The flimsy excuse cut short when she saw him. He was sitting on the floor as if he'd dropped there not a second before, his head hung low and caught between his large palms. His fingertips were white where they dug into the thick hair of his scalp. He looked to be in excruciating agony, his breath hissing through his teeth, eyes squeezed tightly shut.

"Oh, my God," she whispered, stepping farther inside the room. "Dante, what happened? What's the matter with you?"

He didn't answer. Maybe he was incapable.

Although it was clear that he was hurting in some major way, Dante radiated a dark, wild danger that seemed almost inhuman it was so powerful.

Seeing him there in pain on the floor, Tess felt a sharp stab of d?j? vu, a niggle of foreboding that tickled her spine. She started to back away, ready to call 911 and let his problem–whatever it was– belong to someone else. But then his big shoulders hunched over in a tight, pained ball. He let out a moan, and that low, anguished sound was more than she could bear.

Dante didn't know what hit him.

The death vision came on fast, nailing him like an explosion of blistering daylight. He was awake, at least, but suspended in a paralyzing state of awareness, all of his senses gripped in a debilitating, full-on assault. The vision had never come to him outside of sleep. It had never been so fierce, so ruthlessly strong.

One minute he'd been standing next to Tess, swamped with the erotic images of what he wanted to do with her; the next thing he knew, he was ass-planted on the linoleum of the examination room, feeling himself becoming engulfed in smoke and flame.

Fire climbed toward him from all sides, belching thick plumes of black, acrid smoke. He couldn't move. He felt shackled, helpless, afraid.

The pain was immense, as was the despair. It shamed him how deeply he felt both of those things, how hard it was for him not to yell out in torment for what he was living through in his mind.

But he held on, the only thing he could do whenever the vision struck him, and he prayed it would be over soon.

He heard his name on Tess's lips, asking him what he needed. He couldn't answer. His throat was dry, his mouth filled with ash. He sensed the honesty of her concern and the truth of her apprehension, as she drew closer to him. He wanted to tell her to go, to let him suffer it out on his own, the only way he knew how.

But then he felt cool and gentle fingers come to rest on his shoulder. He felt the white calm of sleep float down over him like a sheltering blanket as she stroked his taut spine and the sweat-dampened hair at his nape.

"You'll be all right," she told him softly. "Let me help you, Dante. You're safe."

And for the first time he could ever recall, he believed that he was.