Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Two)

Special delivery for Doctor Tess Culver."

Tess glanced up from a patient's file and smiled, despite the late hour and her general fatigue. "One of these days, I'm going to learn to say no to you."

"You think you need more practice? How about if I ask you to marry me again?"

She sighed, shaking her head at the bright blue eyes and dazzling all-American grin that were suddenly turned on her. "I'm not talking about us, Ben. And what happened to eight o'clock? It's fifteen minutes to midnight, for Pete's sake."

"You got plans to turn into a pumpkin or something?" He pushed off the doorjamb and sauntered into her office. Leaning down, he kissed her cheek. "Sorry I'm so late. These things don't tend to adhere to the clock."

"Uh-huh. So, where is it?"

"Around back, in the van."

Tess stood, pulling an elastic hair band from her wrist and fastening it around her unbound hair. The mass of blondish-brown curls was unruly, even freshly styled. Sixteen hours into her shift at the clinic left it in a state of total anarchy. She blew a wisp of hair from her eyes and strode past her ex-boyfriend to the hallway outside.

"Nora, will you prep a syringe of ketamine-xylazine, please? And ready the exam room for me too– the big one."

"You bet," chirped her assistant. "Hi, Ben. Happy Halloween."

He shot her a wink and a crooked smile that would have melted the knees of any red-blooded woman. "Nice costume, Nora. The Swiss Miss braids and lederhosen are a great look for you."

"Danke sch?n," she replied, beaming at his attention as she skirted the reception station and headed for the clinic pharmacy.

"Where's your costume, Tess?"

"I'm wearing it." Walking ahead of him through the kennel area, past half a dozen sleepy dogs and nervous cats peering at them through their cage bars, Tess rolled her eyes. "It's called the Super Vet Who's Probably Going to Get Arrested for This One Day costume."

"I won't let you get into any trouble. I haven't yet, have I?"

"What about you?" She pushed open the door to the back storage room of the small clinic and walked through with him. "This is a dangerous business you're in, Ben. You take too many risks." "You worried about me, Doc?"

"Of course I worry. I love you. You know that."

"Yeah," he said, a bit sulkily. "Like a brother."

The rear door of the place opened out onto a narrow alley that was seldom occupied, except by the occasional homeless person using the wall of her low-rent animal clinic near the riverfront as a backrest. Tonight Ben's black VW van was parked there. Low growls and snuffles sounded from within the vehicle, and there was a gentle rocking of its shocks, as if something big was pacing back and forth inside.

Which, of course, was exactly what was happening.

"It's contained inside there, right?"

"Yeah. Don't worry. Besides, it's as docile as a kitten, I promise you."

Tess slid him a look of doubt as she stepped off the concrete stoop and walked around to the back doors of the van. "Do I want to know where you got this one?"

"Probably not."

For the past five years or so, Ben Sullivan had been acting as a personal crusader for the well-being and protection of abused exotic animals. He researched his rescue missions case by case, as cleverly as the most covert government spy. Then, like a one-man SWAT team, he moved in, liberating mistreated, malnourished, or endangered and illegal animals from their abusive caretakers and turning them over to legitimate sanctuaries that were equipped to properly care for the creatures. Sometimes, he made an emergency pit stop at Tess's clinic to get treatment for various animal wounds and injuries that needed immediate care.

It was actually how they'd met two years ago. Ben had brought in an abused serval with an intestinal blockage. The small exotic cat was recovered from a drug dealer's house, where it had chewed up and swallowed a rubber dog toy, and it needed to have the blockage surgically removed. It was a painstaking, lengthy procedure, but Ben had stayed the entire time. The next thing Tess knew, they were dating exclusively.

She wasn't sure how they'd gone from fooling around to falling in love, but somewhere along the way it had happened. For Ben, at any rate. Tess loved him back–adored him, really–but she just didn't see them going past the stage of good friends who happened to sleep together from time to time. Even that had cooled off lately, by her own initiative.

"Would you like to do the honors?" she asked him.

He reached out and grabbed the handle of the double doors, carefully swinging them wide.

"My God," Tess breathed, utterly awed.

The Bengal tiger was emaciated and mangy, with an open sore oozing on its front leg from an apparent shackle burn, but even haggard as it was, it was the most majestic thing she'd ever seen. It stared back at them, its mouth slack, tongue out and panting, fear dilating its pupils until they were nearly full black. The tiger grunted, knocking its head against the bars of Ben's containment cage.

Tess cautiously moved closer. "I know, poor baby. You've seen better days, haven't you?" She frowned, noting the odd shape of its front paws, the lack of definition near the toes. "Declawed?" she asked Ben, unable to mask the scorn in her voice.

"Yep. Defanged too."

"Jesus. If they thought they needed to own a beautiful animal like this, why'd they mutilate it so badly?"

"Can't have your advertising mascot shredding your customers or their little brats, now, can you?"

Tess glanced at him. "Advertising mascot? You don't mean the gun shop out on–" She broke off, shaking her head. "Never mind. I really don't want to know. Let's get this big kitty inside so I can have a look."

Ben pulled down a custom-fitted ramp from the back of the van. "Hop in and take the back of the cage. I'll hold the front, since it will be heaviest on the way down."

Tess did as instructed, helping him unload the wheeled container from the van down onto the pavement. When they reached the clinic door, Nora was there waiting. She gasped and cooed at the big cat, then gazed adoringly at Ben.

"Omigod. That's Shiva, isn't it? For years, I've been hoping he'd break out and run away from that place. You totally stole Shiva!"

Ben grinned. "I don't know what you're talking about, liebchen. This cat is just a stray who showed up on my doorstep tonight. I thought Wonder Doc could patch him up a bit before I find him a good home."

"Oh, you are bad, Ben Sullivan! And so totally my hero right now."

Tess gestured to her enamored assistant. "Nora, could you take this end with me, please? We need to lift it up over the stoop."

Nora came around to Tess's side, and the three of them hefted the cage up and into the clinic's back room. They wheeled the tiger into the prepped exam room, which had recently been outfitted with an oversize hydraulic lift table, courtesy of Ben. It was a luxury Tess couldn't have afforded on her own. Although she had a small, devoted clientele, she wasn't exactly operating in the wealthy end of town. She 'd priced her services well below their value, even for the area, feeling it was more important to make a difference than make a profit.

Unfortunately, her landlord and suppliers didn't agree. Her desk was weighted down with a pile of past-due notices that she wasn't going to be able to put off for much longer. She'd have to hit her meager personal savings to cover them, and after that was gone… ?

"Tranquilizer's on the counter," Nora said, breaking into her thoughts.

"Thanks." Tess slipped the capped syringe into her lab-coat pocket, guessing that she probably wasn't going to need it after all, based on the docility and general lethargy of her patient. Besides, she wasn't going to do anything but a visual exam tonight, take a few notes on the animal's overall condition, and get a feel for what needed to be done in order to facilitate safe transportation to its new home.

"Think we can get Shiva–or whatever this stray's name is–to hop up on the table on his own, or should we use the lift?" Tess asked, watching as Ben worked the locks on the cage.

"Worth a shot. Come on, big guy." The tiger hesitated for a moment, head low as it glanced around the brightly lit exam room. Then, with Ben's encouragement, it stepped out of the cage and leaped fluidly onto the metal table. While Tess spoke softly to it and stroked its large head, the animal sat down, sphinxlike, more patient than the most well-behaved house cat.

"So," Nora said, "do you need anything else right now, or can I take off?"

Tess shook her head. "Sure, you can go. Thank you for staying so late tonight. I really appreciate it."

"No prob. The party I'm going to won't even get started until after midnight, anyway." She flipped her long blond braids over her shoulders. "Okay, so, I'm off, then. I'll lock up on my way out. 'Night, you guys."

"Good night," they answered in unison.

"She's a great kid," Ben said after Nora had left.

"Nora's the best," Tess agreed, petting Shiva and feeling for skin lesions, lumps, or other problems beneath its thick fur. "And she's not a kid, Ben. She's twenty-one, about to start her degree in veterinary medicine after she finishes up her last semester at the university. She's going to make a great doctor."

"No one's as good as you. Got a magic touch, Doc."

Tess shrugged off the compliment, but there was a bit of truth in it. Just how much, she doubted Ben really knew. Tess hardly understood it herself, and what she did understand, she wished she could blot out completely. Self-consciously, she crossed her arms, concealing her hands from view.

"You don't have to stay either, Ben. I'd like to keep Shi–" She cleared her throat, arching a brow at him. "My patient, that is, for observation tonight. I won't start any procedures until tomorrow, and I'll call you with my findings before I do any work."

"Dismissing me already? Here I thought I might be able to talk you into dinner."

"I ate dinner hours ago."

"Breakfast, then. My place or yours, you can call it."

"Ben," she said, hedging as he came over and stroked her cheek. His touch was warm and tender, comfortably familiar. "We've been through this already, more than once. I just don't think it's a good idea… "

He groaned, and it was an entirely too sexual sound, low and throaty. There was a time when that sound turned her self-control into butter, but not tonight. Not ever again, if she had any hope of maintaining her personal integrity. It just seemed wrong to go to bed with Ben, knowing he wanted something from her that she couldn't give him.

"I could stay until you wrap up," he suggested, backing off now. "I don't like the idea of you being here all by yourself. This area of town isn't exactly the safest."

"I'll be fine. I'm just going to finish my examination here, then do a bit of paperwork and close up shop. No big deal."

Ben scowled, on the verge of arguing until Tess blew out a sigh and gave him the look. She knew he read it clearly, since he'd seen it more than once during their two years of couplehood. "All right," he agreed finally. "But don't stay too much longer. And you call me first thing in the morning, promise?"

"I promise."

"You sure you're comfortable handling Shiva by yourself?"

Tess glanced down at the haggard beast, which immediately began licking her hand again as soon as she put it near him. "I think I'll be safe with him."

"What'd I tell ya, Doc? Magic touch. Looks like he's already in love with you too." Ben ran his fingers through his golden-blond hair, giving her a defeated look. "I guess if I want to win your heart, I'll need to grow some fur and fangs, is that it?"

Tess smiled and rolled her eyes. "Go home, Ben. I'll call you tomorrow."