Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Eleven)

Afew hours after they left the Internet caf? in Hamburg to board a train to Denmark, Claire and Andreas were being escorted to a rural village Darkhaven, courtesy of the Order. Their contact, a beautiful blond Breedmate named Danika, had taken them into her living quarters like family of her own–all warmth and hospitality, no questions asked. "I hope you don't mind cozy," she said as she walked them into a cheery kitchen located off the back door. "We've only got one spare bedroom and bath, but you're welcome to it." The farmhouse where Danika lived with her baby boy, Connor, and one other mated couple was small by Darkhaven standards. Usually members of the Breed population lived in mansions or large brownstones, sometimes the occasional high-rise apartment building. Darkhavens generally comprised tight-knit communities of a dozen or so inpiduals, everyone looking out for one another like kin, even if they were unrelated by blood. But Danika's living arrangements weren't the only unusual thing about her. She was mother to a very young child, a sweet baby boy with her fair coloring and the unmistakably strong genes of a father who was Breed. She hadn't mentioned a mate, and there seemed to be an air of wistfulness about the woman, especially when she was looking at her son. Like now, when little Connor was leaning out of Danika's arms to point emphatically at Andreas. The boy's big blue eyes were wide and eager, while Andreas's gaze was shadowed by the furrow of his brow.

"I'm sorry," Danika said to him. "It's the dermaglyph peeking over the top of your collar. Connor has become fascinated by them in the past couple of weeks." Andreas grunted and gave a nod to the Breed youngster. "He recognizes his own kind already. Smart boy." Danika beamed. "Yes, he is." Claire watched in quiet surprise as Andreas pushed up his sleeve to reveal more of his Breed skin markings, to Connor's obvious delight. The vampire toddler reached out with his pudgy little hand and patted the beautiful swirls and arcs that ran along Andreas's muscled forearm. "Da," he exclaimed. "Da! Da!" "Oh!" Danika's milky complected cheeks went instantly bright pink. "No, sweetheart, this isn't your father. Oh, God… I'm sorry. How embarrassing." Claire laughed and Andreas chuckled, too. "It's all right," he said. "I assure you, I've been called much worse." Danika smiled, but that trace of sorrow was back in her eyes. "Connor's father, Conlan, was a warrior with the Order. He was killed on a mission in Boston before Connor was born." "I'm so sorry," Claire murmured, realizing how fresh the loss still was, since Danika's son was probably not even two years old. Danika gave a mild shrug, cleared her throat. "After I lost Conlan, I went to Scotland–his homeland–to have Connor. I thought I might stay there permanently and raise our son in the highlands Conlan loved so much, but being in his country without him only made me miss him more. I came back home to Denmark last year." Andreas smoothed his broad palm over the top of Connor's pale blond head. "He would be proud of you, Danika, no matter where you choose to raise his son."

"Thank you for saying so." She smiled shyly, charmed, Claire was guessing by the soft look she gave him. And Andreas was charming, particularly as he took the little boy into his big arms to let him closer explore the glyphs that so intrigued him. Claire saw a glimmer of the man she remembered from before–the carefree, charismatic man she'd fallen helplessly in love with all those years ago. Since he'd come storming back into her life two nights ago, Claire thought that man she'd known and adored was long gone. She thought that part of him had been consumed by the flames that had taken his kin and left him the sole survivor, hellbent on revenge. To think she had actually condemned him once for not being serious enough about life … about her. She'd grown to fear his elusive, devil-may-care ways. She'd worried that he might never be content with just one woman, and maybe he hadn't been after all. She'd certainly heard of his numerous female companions over the years, mortal women, all of them. She knew he had never taken a Breedmate of his own and settled down to have his sons with her, and Claire had long nurtured a secret gladness that he had remained un-bonded all this time. As for her own ill-chosen mate, her loveless match with Wilhelm Roth had produced no offspring either–a blessing, now that she was coming to understand more about Wilhelm's treachery. Despite Andreas's outward recklessness and rakish leanings back when Claire had known him best, he would have made some woman a wonderful mate. She saw that now, in the way he spoke so kindly to Danika and how he took to her son with such ease. Claire looked at him now and wondered how they'd let so much time–so many mistakes and missteps–get in their way. She wondered how long it would take for her to forget this vibrant, magnetic side of him again, once the dust and ash settled on the perilous journey they found themselves on together. How could her life ever go on in light of all she was learning about Wilhelm and all she yearned to have once more with Andreas? "My goodness, I can't believe it's nearly dawn already,"

Danika said, her melodic voice breaking through the heavy weight of Claire's thoughts. "You must be exhausted. Would you like to see where you'll be sleeping?" Claire nodded, afraid her feelings had shown all over her face, for the way the other Breedmate was looking at her with such tenderness and sympathy. She schooled her features into a placid, unreadable mask–a skill she'd perfected during her years as Wilhelm Roth's mate. "What I could really use is a nice hot bath," she said, feeling Andreas's gaze fix on her, even though it had seemed a perfectly reasonable request. "Of course," Danika replied. She glanced to Andreas, who was still holding the delighted Connor. "Would you mind watching him while I show Claire upstairs?" "No problem," he said, his eyes pinning Claire with an intensity that made her blood sizzle in her veins. "Take whatever time you need. The little guy and I will be fine on our own." Claire felt his hot stare following her, as palpable as a lingering caress, as Danika led her out of the kitchen and up the stairs to the second floor of the house. "The bathroom is here," the tall blond female said, gesturing to the open door of a full bath at the top of the stairs. "No one uses this part of the house, so please consider it yours. Here is the bedroom at the end of the hallway." Claire could hardly contain her contented sigh as she walked into the inviting chamber with its golden hardwood floors, dark cherry furnishings, and king-size, quilt-covered bed. It had been a long time since she'd been in a room that exuded such homespun, simple warmth. "I set out a sleep shirt for you, and you'll find plenty of towels in the bathroom.

I don't know what you might be used to at home, but I hope you'll be comfortable enough here." "It's lovely," Claire replied. She drifted over to the massive bed and trailed her fingers across the careful needlework on the quilt's beautiful teal, gray, and cream Nordic design. "This room reminds me of my family's home in Rhode Island." Danika smiled. "Oh, then you're American?" She walked over to a tall, footed armoire and opened the cabinet's burnished- brass-handled doors. "I didn't think you sounded like a German native. No accent at all." "No. I came to Europe many years ago, to study music, actually." Claire walked over to help the other woman retrieve a couple of extra pillows and a folded wool blanket. "I suppose I was very idealistic then, like many young people. As for me, I was torn between my love of the piano and my personal need to do something important with my life, like saving the world." "I'm not sure the world can be saved," Danika said, turning a solemn blue gaze on her. "There's so much corruption and tragedy everywhere you look. Good people die all the time, even the ones whose only faults are striving to do good work and make things better for others." Claire nodded. "My parents were those kind of people.

My mother left a very comfortable life in New England to help bring clean water and medical supplies to a small country in Africa. She met my father, a young doctor from Zimbabwe, while she was working overseas. They fell in love almost instantly, but at that time, marriage wasn't an easy thing to obtain for a white American woman and a black man from Africa. When my mother became pregnant with me, she returned to the States until I was born. My father stayed behind to continue his work and wait for us to come back to be a family. A few months later, conflict broke out in the region. My mother couldn't bear to be away from him while the village they'd worked so hard to build up was being threatened by war. She went back to Africa, and within a month of her arrival they were both killed when rebel forces shot up their camp." "Oh, Claire." Danika pulled her into a caring embrace. "How awful for you and the rest of your family. I'm so sorry." It had been a long time since she'd thought about losing her parents–a couple known to her only by pictures and stories her grandmother in Rhode Island had shared with her as she was growing up, parentless and different, yet a child of privilege in Newport's high society. Now all her relatives in the States were gone.

The house in Newport was still held in trust for her, cared for by a private staff who looked after the grounds and the basic maintenance of the place, but it had been nearly two decades since Claire had been back. She missed it suddenly, missed the feeling of truly being home. Danika released her after a moment and attempted a lighter topic. "So, which of your goals did you end up pursuing?" "Neither, in fact," Claire admitted. "Not long after I arrived in Germany, I had my first run-in with one of the Breed. He was very young–a teenager at most. It was late at night, I was walking home from a concert by myself. I thought he wanted to steal my purse, but he was actually after something else. He was about to bite me when another Breed male stopped him." "Andreas?" Danika guessed, smiling. Claire shook her head. "No, not him. It was someone … else. Someone very important in Hamburg, although I didn't know it at the time. He caught the scent of my blood when the other male knocked me to the ground and I skinned my knees.

He realized right away that I was a Breedmate, so he drove the other vampire off and took me in as his ward. I didn't meet Andreas until later." And, like her parents' doomed relationship, she and Andre also fell instantly, impossibly, in love. She'd spent the past thirty years trying to forget him. Trying to convince herself that she wasn't still in love with him after all this time. "Such a long time to be kept apart. I know how difficult it is, being denied of the thing your heart craves the most," Danika murmured somewhat absently Claire swung an astonished look at her. "What… how did you know–" The other Breedmate sucked in her breath. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to intrude on your thoughts." She brought her index finger up to her temple. "My talent, I'm afraid. I don't like to read thoughts, and to tell you the truth, most of the time I hate that I can. Unfortunately, since Conlan has been gone my talent is becoming unmanageable. I haven't taken another mate, nor do I intend to, and without the regular intake of Conlan's blood, my ability seems to turn on and off at its own whim. I'm sorry, Claire. It was very rude of me." "It's all right." "I don't know that it will bring you any comfort, but you are not suffering alone.

Andreas feels it, as well, you know. He feels the same regret that you carry inside." Danika smiled gently. "His thoughts were just as plain to me in the other room as yours are now. He is torn and broken from rage, but he's hurting in another way, too." Claire stared at her, unable to speak. Barely able to breathe. "Life is precious," Danika continued. "And it is so very short, even for those like us. Four hundred and two years with Conlan wasn't nearly enough time. We don't often get second chances, not in life or in love. If I had just one more minute with my Conlan, I wouldn't waste a second of it on regret. Let Andreas know how you truly feel." "But he isn't mine," Claire murmured softly. "Not anymore." "Try to tell that to your heart." Danika gave Claire's hand a light squeeze. "Try to tell that to his."

Reichen avoided going upstairs for hours after Danika had returned to collect her son. She and Connor had gone to find their own rest for the day, leaving Reichen to prowl the quiet farmhouse, killing time and trying not to think about the fact that Claire was in bed somewhere above him. In bed all alone, her sweet body relaxed and languid. Her buttery light brown skin like velvet to the touch, every exquisite inch of her clean and soft and warm … Good Christ. Since the moment she asked about taking a bath, she'd doomed him to imagining her undressed and fragrant from a long, hot soak. He'd been tempted almost beyond reason to vault up the stairs behind her when she left with Danika, a feeling that had yet to pass. There was nothing he wanted more than to be with her right now, to comfort her and let her know that she was protected from Roth and his cronies.

To assure her that no matter what evil was at work around them, he would keep her safe at any cost. Things he'd failed to provide his kin or Helene. Spending time around Danika and her young son had brought his attention back to that reality with scathing focus. He wasn't here to smooth over Claire's fears, any more than he was here to slake his own longings for her or to answer the primal call of the blood bond that would draw him to her always. A blood bond he'd imposed on her, he was quick to remind himself. No. He was here now for one purpose: vengeance. Everything else–his wants and desires, his future, his right to claim even the thinnest moment of selfish joy–had burned away in the fire that devoured his Darkhaven home. Longer ago than that, he thought grimly, reflecting back on the night he'd last seen Claire. It had been a night of stupidity and violence that had left him beaten and bloodied, baking in an open field under a harsh morning sun. Until that moment, he'd known nothing of the power he'd been cursed with at birth–a power passed down to him by a Breedmate mother he'd never met, who hadn't lived long enough to warn him of what his fury could do. He'd learned that lesson in a brutally vivid moment that awful morning outside Hamburg, and the horror of what he'd done had never left him. So many innocent lives had crumbled to ash around him. His own life was heading swiftly in that same direction, but he still had time to see justice met, at least for those lives that had been lost at Wilhelm Roth's command. He had no doubt that his anger and hatred were only strengthening the fire living inside him. It would destroy him sooner than later, but he'd be damned if he went down without taking Roth with him. He only prayed that his resolve was firm enough to keep Claire far away from him as he moved ever closer to that inevitable end.

It was the depth of that conviction that finally gave him the strength to climb the stairs and find the room that Danika had given them. He also didn't know if the couple who shared the farmhouse was aware of him and Claire, and he wasn't about to put Danika in the position of having to lie to cover for him should the other residents happen to come down and find a stranger in their midst. Reichen paused in front of the closed bedroom at the far end of hallway. His pulse kicked with a visceral awareness of Claire on the other side of that painted white door. He prayed she was asleep, figured she had to be after the hours he'd stalled downstairs. As quietly as he could, he turned the worn porcelain knob and peered inside. "Hello," she said, barely above a whisper. She was sitting up on one side of the king-size bed, wearing a thin baby blue T-shirt that didn't quite conceal the dark buds of her nipples or the shapely swell of her breasts. A small lamp glowed on the nightstand beside her, golden light playing in her ebony hair and across her lovely face.

He scowled and stepped into the room, shutting the door behind him without a sound. "You should be sleeping." She lifted her shoulder. "I thought the bath would relax me, but I can't seem to close my eyes." He had to work damn hard to ignore the bolt of lust that shot through him with the renewed image of Claire sitting naked in a tub full of steaming water and silky white bubbles. "Nightfall will come early," he grumbled. "We've got to be ready to catch our ride back to the States at sundown. You'd better douse that lamp and try to get some rest." She moved on the bed, but only to reach over and gesture to the empty side. "I took one of the softer pillows, but if you'd rather have it you can." He glowered at her, more from the discomfort of his growing erection than her offer of his choice of pillow. Her shift on the mattress had stretched her T-shirt into a second skin. And with the dislodging of the quilt coverlet as she moved, his burning gaze fixated on the tiny scrap of her panties. Crimson red panties, for the love of God. He froze where he stood, every nerve ending in his body going nuclear with arousal. "You might remember that I'm a very sound sleeper," she said, but he was hardly hearing what she was saying. "Don't worry about waking me up if you still toss and turn and hog the covers over there. I probably won't even notice." He shook himself back to consciousness when he realized she expected him to sleep in the bed with her.

Right beside her, when the only thing preventing him from acting on his unholy desire for her was a paltry slip of cotton and a minuscule triangle of red satin. "The bed is yours," he said, his voice a rough scrape in his throat. "This isn't a slumber party, for fuck's sake. You can't actually expect me to sleep with you, Claire." Her expression faltered. "I didn't mean…" "Jesus Christ," he muttered. His skin prickled with a sudden wash of heat and hunger that made his desire stoke even hotter. "Getting in bed with you is the bloody last thing I need to do right now." He must have sounded even more harsh than he realized, based on how quickly she glanced away from him. She shook her head, then exhaled a sigh. "The bed is big enough for both of us. That's all I was trying to say." He stared at her for a long moment, his muscles twitching with the urge to move, to propel him over to where she was on the mattress and ease her down beneath him. He wanted that so badly it was all he could see. All he could taste as the points of his emerging fangs pressed into the flesh of his tongue. "Get some sleep, Claire." He tore himself away from the sight of her and took his own place on the floor nearby. The hand-loomed rug that covered the old wood planks was lumpy and smelled vaguely of lemon wax. He tossed onto his side on the hard floor, the only position that didn't make him painfully aware of the hard-on that was jutting between his thighs like a column of stone. Had he actually tried to caution her a few minutes ago that nightfall would come early? Like hell. It was going to be a long fucking wait till sundown.