Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Eight)

Reichen wasn't sure which was worse: the persistent pain of his gunshot wound, or the way his gut twisted with the urgency to feed. One thing would take care of both problems. Blood. He felt a snarl work its way up his parched throat as his nostrils filled with the mingled odors of dozens of humans in close proximity to him, all of them trapped together in the tight compartment of the train into Hamburg. The temptation to glance up and single out viable prey–the need to quench his burning thirst–was almost overwhelming. "Keep your head down," Claire whispered to him, her breath skating warmly against his ear. "Your eyes, too, Andre." Bad enough he was injured and bleeding, and that both he and Claire smelled like a pair of chimney sweeps. It wouldn't be a good idea to let any of the passengers seated around them get a look at his transformed eyes or his rather unusual dental situation. At least his fury had cooled. He and Claire had walked for about an hour before the glow of his pyrokinesis had ebbed. They'd had no choice but to travel on foot. Until his metabolism leveled out, anything he touched, anything that got too near him, would incinerate to ashes. Claire seemed to pick up on that fact, and she'd kept a careful distance from him while he struggled to get his internal systems back in line. Being Breed, and despite being shot, Reichen could have easily walked the entire two-hour distance from Roth's country house to his private office in Hamburg. He could have crossed the miles at a speed human eyes couldn't possibly track, but no way would he have abandoned Claire to the night by herself. Not after everything she'd been through. Or, rather, everything that he had put her through.

She was weary and fatigued, even now, seated next to him on the inbound train. She hadn't put up much of an argument at all when he led her to the rural village station and asked her which line they needed to take. They'd had no money on them, so Reichen had procured their passage with a little Breed-born sleight of hand. At his suggestion, the man collecting tickets fell into a quick but brief trance, giving them the opportunity to slip past the turnstiles and board the train with no one the wiser. The trick had sapped just about all of his strength, but at least Claire was out of the cold and able to relax. He, on the other hand, was as twitchy and tense as he could be. Reichen tucked his chin down to his chest and hunched his shoulders to help conceal his assorted visible problems from any curious human eyes. His thirst was another thing.

It gnawed at him, always at its most fevered after the fire. Under ordinary circumstances, he and his kind could go a week or more without feeding, but since the attack on his Darkhaven and the reawakening of the deadly power inside him, his thirst was persistent. Almost constant. He'd seen others among his kind fall into blood addiction. It didn't happen often, mostly among those of weaker minds and lesser years, or, on the other end of the spectrum, the earliest generations of the Breed whose bloodlines were less diluted with human genes and closer to the Ancients–the alien fathers of the vampire race on Earth. Reichen's pyrokinetic curse was bad enough, but the thirst that rose in its wake horrified him every bit as much as the fires he could summon at will. And if he was being honest, with himself at least, he could hardly deny that the fires were becoming less of a response to his fury and more of a ruling part of who he was. Since he'd begun his mission of vengeance on Roth a few weeks ago, the fires were strengthening. Now they sprang to life with barely a thought, burning deeper and longer, more explosive every time. And once they faded, he was gripped with a blood thirst that could hardly be contained or sated. He was losing himself to both, and he knew it. If he stayed in Claire's company much longer, she would know it, too. Even as the gravity of that thought coiled around him, Reichen couldn't help watching in his periphery as a young hipster got up from his seat across the compartment from him and moved to a place that had been vacated at the last stop. Reichen followed the human male with a predator's gaze, noting the young man's lack of awareness of his surroundings as he flopped down onto the seat. White earbuds emitted tinny echoes of the music that was blaring into the human's head. Downcast, sullen eyes peeked out from under a sweep of jagged black bangs, all of the hipster's focus rooted on the touch screen of his iPhone as he busied himself with an intense round of text messaging. Reichen watched with the same keen interest as a lion observing wildebeests at the watering hole, his hunting instincts prickling to attention, already separating the easiest prey from the pack of other commuters. The train slowed. As it pulled into a station, the human got up. Reichen's muscles tensed in reflex. He started to follow, hunger ruling him, but Claire's hand came down gently on his forearm.

"Not this one. We get off at the next station." He sat back down and tried not to let the irritated growl escape him as the train's doors slid shut and his erstwhile meal ambled obliviously into the crowd newly poured onto the platform. A few minutes later, he and Claire reached their stop. They got off the train and walked the rest of the way to the Speicherstadt, Hamburg's warehouse district. Rows of tall redbrick buildings pided by canal waterways glowed with incandescent light against the night sky. The mingled aromas of coffee beans and spices rode on the crisp breeze as Claire led him over a sweeping arched bridge, then deeper into the historic district. As the scents would indicate, some of the gothic buildings appeared to still be in use as commodities warehouses; others had been converted to stores housing fine Oriental rugs. Claire continued on for another couple of blocks before she paused in front of a brick-and-limestone building that looked like any of its neighbors. A trio of concrete steps flanked by delicate wrought-iron railings led up to an unmarked, unnumbered door. "This place belongs to Roth?" Reichen asked as they reached the top step. She nodded. "One of several private offices he keeps in the city. Will you be able to open the locks?"

"If not by will, then by brute force," he said, moving in front of her to direct a mental command at the double dead bolts on the door. He hit them hard with his mind, careful not to wake the fire that still lurked at the edge of his control, waiting for the excuse to burn again. With a series of metallic clicks, the dead bolts twisted free and the door inched open. When Claire started to pass him and walk inside, Reichen held her back with a look. "Wait here while I look around. It might not be safe." He recognized the irony in his protectiveness as he stepped into the dark building and searched for any signs of trouble. Running into more Enforcement Agents would be a definite problem, but he was by far the worst threat to Claire's safety. Especially in his current hungered state. "All right," he told her when he was certain the quiet building was empty. He flicked on a light switch for her as she entered. Roth's tastes in this place were an incongruous mix of Old World and modern minimalist. Slick chrome-and-glass pieces competed with exquisite antiques. The art on the walls were beautiful masterworks, yet every painting depicted a scene of horrific brutality. Death scenes appeared to be a favorite, whether the subject was men, women, or animals. Apparently Roth didn't discriminate when it came to his appreciation for violence. "How often does he stay here?" Reichen asked, not missing the fact that there was a bedroom loft occupying the entire upper floor. "Often. At least, from what I understand," Claire said quietly but without any bitterness as she walked over to a computer workstation and turned on the machine. As it fired up, she opened one of the desk drawers and began sifting through its contents. "I do know that his work for the Agency has also taken him to Berlin from time to time." Reichen looked up at her, seeing the doubt in her soft brown gaze. She may not want to believe his accusations against her mate, but Claire was wrestling with at least some measure of uncertainty about Wilhelm Roth. "How is your wound?" she asked, looking remorseful where she had no reason to be. Reichen shrugged his good shoulder. The bullet had passed through cleanly; once he fed, the healing would speed even faster. "I'll live," he said. "Long enough to do what must be done." He could see her throat work as she swallowed. "When will you stop all of this, Andre? How many more people have to die?" His answer was grim and resolute. "Just one." She held his hard stare.

"What will you do if your accusations against him turn out to be false?" "What will you do if they turn out to be true?" She didn't say anything as he came over to where she stood, just backed away a few paces and gave him access to the computer and the handful of business cards and receipts that she had emptied onto the desk. Reichen brought up Roth's e-mail and started searching his records–looking for precisely what, he wasn't certain. Clues of Roth's activities, his contacts. Leads on his current whereabouts. Anything. What he needed to do was focus on his reasons for being there in the first place, not the inescapable awareness of Claire standing so near him, a warmth and presence that he felt straight into his marrow. He was working so hard to ignore his visceral response to her that he looked at the mess of business cards on Roth's desk three times before his eye lit on the one made of silver vellum with elegantly simple black type. He plucked the card out of the collection and read it, despite that he knew the name and address listed on it by heart. Even though it truly came as no surprise that he should find the card among Roth's possessions, he still felt his blood run cold in his veins. "What did you find?" Claire asked, no doubt sensing his sudden tension. She came closer, peered around him at the scrap of translucent paper in his hand. "Aphrodite. What is that?" "A club in Berlin," Reichen replied. "It's an exclusive, very expensive brothel." He glanced at Claire in time to see her curiosity change to a look of quiet discomfort. "Wilhelm's never had a shortage of willing female company. He would consider it beneath him to have to pay for it. The fact that he has that card means nothing." "It means he was there," Reichen said. "I don't need this scrap of paper to prove it. The owner of Aphrodite and I were… close. I trusted Helene implicitly." Claire glanced away from him for a moment. "I'd heard a while ago that you'd taken up with a mortal woman. One of many from what I understand." He let the comment go uncountered, but he was surprised to hear that she'd been aware of his personal affairs. And yes, there had been many women in his life over the years, a string of forgettable liaisons he'd taken little pride in, even now. Especially now. But he had respected Helene more than the other human females he'd taken into his bed or under his fangs. She had become a close confidante, a true friend, though even she had been oblivious to the darker, deadly side of him he'd worked so hard to suppress. "Helene was a good woman. She knew I was Breed and she kept the secret. She also kept me informed about things going on at the club. Recently I learned that one of her employees had begun dating a wealthy, very important man on the side. This employee had shown up for work more than once with bite marks on her neck. Not long afterward, she vanished without a trace. I asked Helene to look into it, and she came back with a name: Wilhelm Roth." Claire's brow creased with her frown. "Just because this girl might have spent time with him doesn't mean he killed her."

"He didn't stop there," Reichen said, his voice tight. "While I was away on another matter, Helene showed up at my Darkhaven. Someone let her in, not realizing it was an ambush. Helene had been made a Minion since I'd last seen her. Her master sent her to my home with a unit of armed assassins–an Enforcement Agency death squad. They killed everyone inside. They shot all of them in cold blood, Claire. Even the children." She gaped up at him aghast, slowly shaking her head. "No, there was an explosion. A terrible fire–" "Yes, there was," Reichen admitted, taking her by the arms as his anger began to roil in remembrance. "I set the house ablaze, but not until after I arrived and saw the slaughter inside. And not until after I found Helene waiting for me, covered in my family's blood. She told me who made her, Claire…just before I ended her misery then burned my home and all the souls in it to the ground." Claire's tender brown eyes swam with a sudden rise of tears, but she said nothing. Not a word of denial or disbelief.

Not a single syllable in defense of her mate. "Andre…" She shouldn't have touched him. The warm feel of her palm coming up to rest gently on his cheek sent him over an edge he'd been teetering on since the moment he laid eyes on her again. A hell of a lot longer than that, if he was being honest. Reichen brought his hand around to the soft arch of her nape and pulled her close. He bent his head and pressed his mouth to hers. There was no tentativeness, no meek beginnings, as their lips came together and meshed in a fevered kiss that was as familiar and righteous as it was forbidden. Claire. Ah, Christ. He'd nearly forgotten what it felt like to hold her, to kiss her. To want her with a need that scorched as hot as lava in his belly. His body remembered all the ways she'd once made him burn. Arousal surged through him, turning his blood to fire and his cock to hard-forged steel. In that instant, he didn't care that he was injured and bleeding and hellbent on vengeance. He didn't care that she belonged to another–his most treacherous enemy. All he knew was the heat of Claire's mouth on his. The warm press of her curves against him. He wanted more. He wanted all of her, and now the hunger that had been clinging to him so relentlessly was wrapping its tendrils around him even tighter. His stomach twisted, burning. His fangs ripped farther out of his gums, the sharp points throbbing with every moist brush of her lips against his.

He wanted to taste her. God help him, he wanted to drown in her, right here and now. She should be his. This kiss told him she was his, still, even if Breed law and the blood bond she'd given to another male forbade it. She would always be his … No. Reichen growled as he tore his mouth away from hers and set her away from him with rough, unsteady hands. His chest was heaving, breath sawing through his teeth and fangs. The bullet wound in his upper chest screamed with renewed pain, all the worse for the way his veins were pounding with hunger. The room felt too hot, stifling. He needed to cool down before his threadbare restraint got any thinner. Claire was staring at him with her fingers pressed to her kiss-swollen mouth, as if she didn't know whether to scream or cry. "I need some air," he muttered. "Jesus Christ, this was a fucking mistake coming here with you. I need to get the hell out of here." "Andreas." He pivoted to head for the door, but before he could take more than a couple of steps, Claire was right behind him. "Where are you going? Talk to me, please." He kept walking, hoping like hell she would just let him go. He wanted Roth to pay for what he'd done, but did he really have a right to take Claire down in the process? Some selfish part of him reasoned that it would only be fair if Roth's mate was part of his price. What better vengeance than to ruin the corrupt son of a bitch and claim his woman for his own? Jesus. He didn't want to go there.

As tempting as it was, that wasn't what this was about. He'd gone to great lengths decades ago to shield Claire from the deadly monster he had become. He hadn't done that only to come back and destroy her now… had he? "Andreas, please don't walk away from me." Her voice trailed him as he reached to open the door. She let out a choked, humorless laugh, full of pain and raw contempt. When she finally found her voice again, it was soft with condemnation. "Goddamn you. How can you still make me feel this way after all these years? Damn you for leaving me! And damn you for coming back like this, just when I thought you were gone forever and I might finally be able to forget you." In spite of every instinct that shouted for him to put one foot in front of the other and take his deadly business with Roth far away from Claire, Reichen paused. She didn't know how dangerous he was right now. Or maybe she did, but was too confused and pissed off to care. She drew in an audible breath, then blew it out on a defeated-sounding sigh.

"Goddamn you, Andre, for standing here and making me doubt every choice I've ever made." He turned to face her justifiable outrage. Blood thirst swamped him as he looked at her, his physical need for sustenance warring with the carnal desire that no amount of chill night air would be able to cool. She was so beautiful and strong. So good and honest. And she was furious with him now; the frantic ticking of her pulse at the base of her buttery light brown throat was testament to that. Reichen couldn't look away from the steady pound of her heartbeat. The fire had taken its toll on him as much as the hit he took to the chest earlier tonight. He was no longer in control of his thirst; it had overthrown his will now. It was all he knew as he moved toward Claire, everything about him that was Breed and male trained wholly on this woman. "Why did you leave me?" she asked as he neared her. He grunted, savoring the vanilla sweet scent of her blood as it raced beneath the surface of her delicate skin. "To protect you." She frowned, dubious.

"From what?" "From the worst of me." She gave a slow shake of her head. "I was never afraid of you, Andre. I'm still not afraid." "You damn well should be … Frau Roth." He bared his fangs and pinned her in the amber glow of his transformed eyes–one brief moment's warning, enough for her to back away from him or hit him or scream. She couldn't know how hard it was for him to give her even that much. He moved closer to her, crowding her with his body, even as he told himself he still had honor, that the fire living inside him hadn't yet burned away all of his humanity. But that was a lie. He felt the bleak hollowness of that hope crumble the instant his fangs bit into the tender flesh of Claire's throat. She gasped. Her hands came up between the hard press of his body against hers, her palms flattened across his sternum. He felt her sudden tension, her jolt of shock and adrenaline as he caged her in his arms and drew the first taste of her warm, rich blood into his mouth. At first, he fed with mindless hunger. Gulp after gulp, driven by the primal need for nourishment. But through the haze of his blood- fevered mind, as he drank from Claire's vein, he began to feel something… else. Her blood scent swamped him, filling his head like the sweetest intoxication. The rapid beat of her pulse against his tongue now blossomed into a visceral pound that echoed in his own blood. Possession rose within him, dark and dangerous. He held her fast in his bite, savoring the taste of her as his body went rigid with the need to claim her in a more carnal way, as well. He felt her fingers digging into his back as he drank from her, breath rasping in soft, shallow pants against his ear. His senses filled with her.

A low, humming power flowed into him, power he felt roaring through his cells and into every fiber of his body. Deeper still, into the fabric of his soul, the core of his entire being. Claire was the first, the only Breedmate he'd ever drunk from, and now there could be no other for him so long as she lived. All that was Breed in him came alive as though he'd been asleep all his life and now overflowed with a profound awareness of this female–now and forever. An eternal stamp, a bond of blood. A connection to her that he could not undo except by death, hers or his own. "Andreas." Claire's soft cry of distress tore through him like a knife. Horrified at what he'd just done to her–to both of them–he sealed her wound with a quick sweep of his tongue and reeled back on his heels. Her cheeks were flushed dark rose, her breath sawing through her parted lips as she stared at him in abject shock. Reichen felt her dread like his own. Every intense emotion she felt from now on would be his, as well. "Andre," she whispered, lifting her hand up to touch his healing bite. Her face was twisted with a miserable sort of confusion. "Oh, my God…What have you done?" He took a step backward, leveled by shame. Claire belonged to another male. Not him.

She had given herself to Roth, whether Reichen liked it or not. She was already blood bonded, as Roth was blood bonded to her. Now, with this unconscionable breach of that sacrament, Reichen had imposed himself on that bond. In drinking from Claire, he had irrevocably linked himself to her. He would be drawn to her always. Aware of her always. It was the most sacred gift a Breedmate could give one of his kind, and he had taken it from her–stolen it–in an act of pure selfish need. "Forgive me, Claire," he murmured. Sick with himself for how deeply he wanted her, with or without the drumming intensity of a blood bond, he drew farther away from her. He drifted backward, inching toward the door. "Ah, Christ… Please, forgive me."