Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Fifteen)

Claire's footsteps echoed hollowly off the bare floors of her grandmother's house. It had been a long time since she'd last been in the grand old Victorian that stood on the rough shore of Narragansett Bay, but it still felt the same. It still smelled the same, like old wood and furniture polish and crisp salt air. Of course, in the time since she was last here, before she'd left as a young woman to begin her studies abroad in Germany, much had changed. Her grandmother had since passed away, and now the estate was held in trust in Claire's name, as she was the sole heir and last of her mother's line. Not even Wilhelm knew about this place. She had kept its existence all to herself, a secret she was glad to have from him now. The caretakers who'd been hired out of the trust had done a superb job looking after the house and the extensive grounds after her grandmother's passing. As stipulated in the agreement, a spare key was kept behind a loose foundation brick next to the veranda–the same spot that had been used since the time when Claire's mother was a little girl growing up in the grand old house. Claire had been counting on that key's safekeeping when she'd fled the airport in Boston and hopped on the bus that took her down to Newport. Finding it where it had always been had given her hope that maybe everything would be all right again.

Maybe she would still find some peace–find her true home–when all of the dust settled from the upheaval of her life right now. The trouble with that hope was that she kept picturing Andreas in her future, and that was only setting herself up for disappointment. She tried to put him out of her mind as she drifted through the ground floor of the house, reacquainting herself with the memories of her distant past. Family portraits and framed art had been taken down and crated to preserve them. The elegant furniture her grandmother had taken such meticulous care of was shrouded in long white dust covers, giving everything a ghostly, forgotten appearance even with all the lights burning. The curtains and blinds were drawn over the windows and the wall of French doors that let out onto the patio that overlooked the ocean. It was toward those tall French doors that Claire strode now. She pulled them open, all four pairs, and let the briny autumn wind blow in from off the Atlantic.

Its call was too strong for her to resist. She stepped outside and crossed the wide bricks of the patio terrace, then walked down onto the grass, breathing deeply of the ocean scent that had always meant home to her. Farther out was a jut of rocks that had been one of her favorite thinking spots. She went there now, navigating carefully over the bulky black stone in the dark. She found the flat ledge that formed the perfect seat on the rough edge of the outcropping and eased herself down onto it. For a long while, she simply stared out at the water, watching the waves shimmer under the pale glow of the moon and stars. She could have stayed in that tranquil spot for hours more, but the incoming tide was creeping ever higher on the rocks and soon the water would drive her away. Regretfully, she turned around and crawled back from the edge. When she stood up, she was startled to find she wasn't alone. "Andreas," she said, astonished to see him. His chest was rising and falling visibly, concern spread across the taut lines of his face. Claire had to force her feet to remain grounded and not move toward him in reflex. She didn't want him here, despite what her heart seemed to think. "How did you find me?" Even as she asked the question she knew the answer. Breed senses were superhumanly acute.

As if the blood bond he now had with her wasn't beacon enough, he could have easily tracked her by scent. Not that he seemed inclined to explain himself. He was pissed off and worried, and the fact that he'd come all this way to find her should have been reassuring, even flattering. It might have been, if not for the fact that with Wilhelm Roth less than a hundred miles away, she needed Andreas gone as far as possible from her. And the sooner, the better. "You left without a word, Claire." She tried not to scoff at the irony in that. "I would have expected you'd be a bit more accepting, considering your history with good-byes." He stared at her, eyes narrowed. "What's going on with you?" She shrugged with a casualness she didn't feel. "Nothing."

"Why did you leave like that? You didn't think for one minute that I would be concerned if you just vanished without any explanation?" He exhaled a low curse and shook his head, contrite, even though his eyes were still hot with anger. "I damn well deserved it, I know. But you scared the hell out of me back there. Talk to me. Tell me what's going on." She couldn't tell him. Fear for what he would do if he knew Roth was close by froze that part of the truth in her throat. She glanced away from his intense, probing stare. "I'm afraid, Andreas. I just wanted to be somewhere familiar, somewhere that I belong. After everything that's happened, I suppose I just wanted to be home. I wanted a little peace." "Home and peace," he said, doubt bracketing his mouth in tense lines. "No, I don't think so. You bolted out of there like it was me you couldn't get away from fast enough. I want to know why. Was it because of what happened … in the dream? Because I didn't mean to hurt you. I want you to know that." When she only stared at him in mute torment, his hand came up to gently stroke her cheek. "God, Claire… all I have ever wanted was to keep you safe." A sob worked its way up her throat. "Why?" she murmured. "Why are you showing me all of this tenderness now, Andre? Why not then?" He swore softly. "To keep you safe, I had to let you go." She shook her head, unwilling to accept that excuse, but he softly caught her chin. The pad of his thumb was a whisper of contact as he brushed it across her lips. "I left because of what I had become. You've seen it now–the fire that lives inside me. I was horrified when I thought of what it could do to those I loved. Like you, Claire. Christ… especially you."

She swallowed with a dry throat. "Why didn't you tell me all of this at the time? We could have worked through it–" "No," he said. "There was no working through it, not then. It exploded out of me without any warning. I lived most of my life never knowing what my fury could do. Once it got loose the first time, it owned me. I left Germany because it was the only thing I could do. It took the better part of a year for me to finally bring the fires to heel. By the time I returned, you were already with Roth." Claire listened, struggling to put all the pieces in place in her mind. "So, all your life, you never knew anything about your pyrokinetic ability?" "Not until the last night I saw you." "We argued," she said, remembering their parting words. They'd been out most of the evening in Hamburg, enjoying each other's company as they had for the handful of months they'd been together. But then she'd become jealous when another woman started flirting with him. Andreas had always been a magnet for female company, with his good looks and easy charisma, but he swore to her that he was interested only in her. Claire hadn't believed him. She told him she wanted proof–a commitment that his love was true.

When he hesitated, she had become upset and scared that he didn't really love her. She called him selfish, irresponsible. Unkind things. She'd been unreasonable and she knew it, even then. "I regretted my words the minute I said them," she told him now, an apology some decades too late. "I was young and stupid, and I was unfairly harsh with you, Andreas." He shrugged. "And I was a pigheaded fool who should have known better. Instead, I had been all too eager to prove you right. After I left you at Roth's Darkhaven, I went into the city looking for a fight. I found a few, actually, and after I had sufficiently bloodied my knuckles and used my face to crack a few others, I found myself in a rundown hotel in the company of two intoxicated women I brought with me from a bar along the way." Claire's disappointment to hear this now was couched by her concern for what had apparently happened to him next. "At some point, there was a knock on the door. Another woman. I let her in, and because I was … distracted by my own idiocy, I didn't realize she had a knife in her hand until she'd sliced it across my throat." Claire winced, her heart twisting at the thought. "What did you do?" "I bled," he answered simply. "I bled so much, I thought I would die from it.

I nearly did, in fact. I was too weak to struggle when a group of Breed males came into the room and carried me to a truck in the alley outside. They chained me and dumped me in a remote farmer's field to bleed out and then fry to dust with the sunrise." "Oh, my God. Andre… I saw that field, didn't I? You showed it to me in your dream yesterday." His answering look was a grim confirmation. "Sometime between that awful hour and daybreak, I felt an unnatural heat beginning to burn inside me. It kept growing, until my entire body was bathed in blistering energy. And then it exploded out of me. I don't recall everything–that's one of the least unpleasant aftereffects, as I would learn. The fires burned from within me, but my skin didn't ignite. By the time dawn started to rise, the chains had melted away. I tried to scramble for some shade, but I was weak from blood loss. I didn't see the young girl until she was standing right next to me." A knot of dread tightened behind Claire's breastbone.

"A girl?" He nodded, only the slightest movement of his head. His mouth was drawn tight, his face rigid with regret. "She only could have been about ten or twelve years old, out in the field that morning calling for a missing cat. She came upon me struggling in the dirt and asked what she could do to help me. Because of the injury to my throat, I had no voice. I couldn't have warned her away, even if I had any idea of what would happen to her if she got too close to me while my body was still deadly with heat." Claire closed her eyes, understanding now. She placed her hand against his cheek, having no words to express the pain she knew he must have felt for what he'd done to the child. Pain it was clear that he felt even now, all this time later. "I crawled away from the field like an animal, which is what I felt I was.

Worse than an animal, to have destroyed someone so innocent and pure. I found shelter in a cave so I could heal. Once I was recovered, I fled. I couldn't stay… not after what I'd done. And in the time since, even though many years passed without the fires returning, I still lived with the fear that I might hurt the people I cared about the most." His fingers were light in her hair, tender as they brushed her brow. "Leaving you had never been in my plans. After I came back and heard you'd been mated to Roth, I stayed in Berlin and told myself you were better off with him. That way I could be sure you would always be safe from the death inside me." "I've seen your power, Andre. I've seen what it can do. But it hasn't hurt me—you haven't hurt me." "Not yet," he replied, his tone dark. "But now it's stronger than it ever was before.

It was reckless of me to summon the fires the night my Darkhaven was attacked. It's more deadly than before, and each time the fury comes alive in me, it burns hotter than the last time." Claire saw his torment, but instead of rousing her sympathy, it stirred a biting anger. "Is your vengeance worth all of that? Is anything worth killing yourself in order to have it? That's what you're doing, Andre. You're killing yourself with this awful power of yours, and you know it." He scoffed sharply, a wordless denial. "I'm doing what needs to be done. I don't care what happens to me in the end." "I do," she said.

"Damn it, I care what happens to you. I'm looking at you now and I see a man who is destroying himself with fury. How many more times can you come out of the flames without losing yourself to them? How long before the fire consumes your humanity?" He stared at her for a long moment, his square jaw held tight. He shook his head. "What would you have me do?" "Stop," she said. "Stop all of this, before you no longer have the ability to end it." The logic was so clear to her. He had an obvious choice here: Let go of his rage and live, or continue his pursuit of vengeance and perish–either by the power that she could see was destroying him, or by the war he was purposely stoking with Wilhelm Roth. "There is no stopping it, Claire. I've come too far to turn back now and you know it. I've pushed Roth too far these past few nights and weeks that I've been hunting him down." He exhaled a clipped sigh and his mouth curved into a humorless smile. "Ironic, isn't it? That what drove me away from you then is now the thing that's brought us back together, such as it is. But what you said earlier is right. You do deserve peace now… and I should leave you to it." He moved close and pressed his lips against her forehead, then dropped a tender kiss on her mouth. He drew back, then turned and started to walk away. Claire watched him start up the lawn. Her heart broke a little with every step he took. She couldn't let him go–not like this. Not when every fiber of her being was crying out for him to stay.

"Andreas, wait." He kept going, long strides carrying him farther and farther away from her. She couldn't have held back from him if she herself were chained and dumped and forgotten behind him. Claire ran up the grass and caught his hand. She turned him around to face her, so many words and regrets clogging her throat. "Don't go" was all she managed to say. It was threadbare, a plea. His dark eyes glittered with sparks of amber. His golden skin seemed tighter in the moonlight, his mouth a stern, determined line that didn't quite conceal the swell of fangs behind his lips. "Andre, please … don't go."

Claire lifted up onto her toes and curved her fingers around his strong nape, dragging him down to meet her lips. She kissed him with all the passion she'd always held for him–all the desperate, impossible yearnings that had lived in her heart all these long years. He kissed her back with even greater ardor. His arms went around her, crushing her to him so that she could feel the hard heat of his chest and thighs against her and the harder, hotter part of him that pressed like a length of thick steel at her hip. Claire reveled in his arousal, in the warm, rough moan that vibrated in her bones as he broke their kiss to bury his face in the curve of her neck and shoulder. He wanted her, as much or more than she wanted–needed–him. This was no dream now. This was real and raw and so, so right. "God, Claire," he rasped, the tips of his fangs abrading the tender skin of her collarbone.

"Why couldn't you have just let me go?" She shook her head, too lost for words or reason. All she knew was the desire she had for this man, this incredible, honorable Breed male who should have been hers. Who might never be hers again, once his search for the justice that consumed him finally did take him away from her. Claire stroked her hands over the muscled ridges of his body, tipping her head back to let his mouth roam wherever it wanted on her skin. She was panting with hunger, her legs melting beneath her from the heat that was detonating in her core. Andreas drew back to gaze down into her face. He looked so beautiful, so wild and powerful, it made her heart ache. She saw the naked passion in his crackling amber eyes and knew that he saw the same need in her. She couldn't deny it. She wasn't nearly strong enough to try. Too much time had kept them apart. Too many obstacles that now seemed impossible to surpass. But they had desire. Claire trembled with it, and felt a similar vibration coursing through Andreas as she clung to him. "Please," she whispered, needing to feel his weight against her. She needed to feel his body merged with hers, not in a dream or memory, but flesh to flesh. Naked and carnal.

"Oh, God, Andre … please be with me again now." He growled against her throat, a rough profanity that only made her pulse throb harder. With a sure, fluid grace of movement, he swept her up, lifting her feet off the ground and cradling her in the muscled strength of his arms. He carried her across the lawn, to the open French doors of the house. Inside, he slowly set her down amid the shrouded, ghostly furniture. He kissed her tenderly, sweetly, as he grabbed the edge of a white sheet that draped an antique, cushioned chaise and cast it aside. Claire let him guide her down onto the elegant seat, lying back as he loomed over her like some kind of immense, otherworldly god. He kissed her some more, while his fingers began unfastening the buttons of her prim sweater. Unlike their encounter in his dream, this time clothing did not simply dissolve away. Andreas took his time undressing her, his mouth skimming worshipfully over every inch of her skin as he unveiled her. He suckled her breasts and teased the curve of her belly and hip.

When he painstakingly peeled away her slacks and panties, he dipped his head into the juncture of her thighs and nipped maddeningly at the tender skin, his tongue cleaving the wet petals of her core. Claire threw her head back and moaned in pleasure as he loved her with his mouth and teased her with the sharp white points of his fangs. Her first orgasm took her by total surprise. It rushed up on her and swept her high, pleasure she could not contain any more than the broken cry she sent up to the ceiling as her climax overcame her. Andreas lapped at her lovingly, patiently, even though his hands trembled as they skated over her bare flesh, kneading and caressing her heated skin. "You taste so good," he murmured against her wetness. "Even sweeter than I remembered. Better than any dream." Claire put her palms on his shoulders, pushing him back as she drew herself up. She eased him down, then crawled up over him, straddling his legs with her bare thighs. She ran her hands under his loose shirt, baring him for her mouth to explore.

When she had worked her way up to his throat, she stripped the shirt off completely and let her eyes take in the unique beauty of his dermaglyph patterns. Right now, with desire etched in Andreas's every taut muscle and expression, his glyphs were flooded with indigo, burgundy, and darkest autumn gold. Claire traced them with her fingertip, then bent her head and followed the intricate swirls and flourishes with her tongue as she'd been dying to do since she saw him sitting on the moonlit lakeshore of his dream. Some of those glyphs tracked farther down his body, as she vividly recalled. Not wanting to neglect any part of him, Claire unfastened the button of his pants and loosened the zipper. He sucked in his breath as she nuzzled the soft skin of his groin and nipped at his tender flesh.

When she tugged his pants down lower, past the smooth, jutting head of his penis, then lower still, he exhaled a pleading oath. Claire kissed her way around his thick cock, admiring the breadth and length and power of him before she dipped her head and caught the blunt tip of him in her mouth. She only teased for now, loving the silky, salty taste of him. She didn't want to rush. She wanted to prolong this moment, this stolen night that she'd dreamed of for so long. When she spoke, her voice was husky from passion and a fresh, kindling need. "Do you have any idea how many times I wanted to seek you out when I was sleeping? There were days, sometimes weeks at a time, when it was all I thought of… all I wanted to do was run away to find you. To know this pleasure again with you. You were the only one, Andre. It's always been you."

He growled, a sound of total, unabashed possessiveness. His hands were rough in her hair, hard against the back of her skull as she bent over him once more and took him fully into her mouth. He arched up, hissing a wordless cry as she sucked him deeper. "Ah, God," he gasped. "That feels so damn good. Claire, if you don't stop …" She didn't stop. She couldn't get enough of him, not even when his body gave a hard shudder and his release roared out of him. She stroked him with her tongue and throat, greedy for everything he would give her after so many years of wanting him. Of loving him. She couldn't deny that it was love she felt for him as he drew out of her grasp and plundered her mouth with a fevered, demanding kiss. It was love that filled her heart as he filled her body with his own. Love that made her scream his name as he brought her to the height of another devastating climax, before he began to seduce her all over again.

The bitch was sorely trying his patience. Wilhelm Roth fisted his hand and drove it through the clouded window of the Boston warehouse he'd been forced to relocate to recently. Pain ripped through him as he brought his hand out of the shattered glass, the flesh over his knuckles shredded and bloodied. He knew Claire would feel it, too, if distantly, just as he was feeling the proof of her current infidelity with Andreas Reichen. Her pleasure made acid boil in his gut. That it was pleasure shared with Reichen made him want to kill them both. Savagely. He'd been more than a little surprised to detect Claire's presence near Boston earlier tonight.

The awareness of her had since faded, but he was certain she was in New England somewhere. She and Reichen both, apparently The only thing keeping him from hunting the pair down was the fact that his hands were full with the current mission for Dragos in the city. His priorities had been made crystal clear by Dragos when he'd exiled him to Boston, and Roth wasn't about to let him down. He would have his chance to make Claire and her damnable lover pay. He was certain he'd have ample opportunity to inflict great pain on both of them soon enough. And he could hardly wait. He'd been chewing on the fact that Dragos had intimated that Reichen was involved with the Order. It wouldn't be surprising if it were true. Despite the male's arrogance and insubordination, there had long been an air of self-righteousness about him. Roth supposed the male had subscribed to a certain code of honor, even then, in the past, when he had come sniffing around Claire's skirts after Roth had already decided she would belong to him alone.

Never mind that he already had a mate; he and Ilsa had been a poor match, one he'd made hastily in a moment of passion and grown bored of not long afterward. He should have gotten rid of her sooner than he had, but then Claire came along and gave him all the excuse he needed. Or, rather, Andreas Reichen had provided the excuse, just a short time before either man had even met the beautiful Claire Samuels. Roth had often wondered if Reichen realized the seething contempt he'd inspired when he'd shown weak little Ilsa a gesture of kindness at a Darkhaven reception. It had been a small thing, really, a dry jacket to cover her after Roth had sent her weeping to a rain-drenched balcony when she dared to contradict him in front of his peers. He'd meant to punish her privately, but Reichen had strolled by and discovered her sitting outside by herself in the cold. Incredibly, he'd had the gall to insist she take his coat and then arranged for his driver to send her home without Roth's permission. Roth fumed even now just to think on it.

He'd fumed then, too, and waited for a chance to put Reichen firmly in his place. He found that chance once Claire arrived in Hamburg and caught the eye of nearly every available Breed male in the region. Reichen included. So Roth had waited and watched, and when the time was right, he'd had his men deal with Reichen. Then he threw himself into the task of helping poor, devastated Claire pick up the pieces of her shattered heart. Taking her as his mate was merely icing on an already delectable cake. Oh, he'd had to kill Ilsa to clear the way, but it was a small inconvenience to have the satisfaction of knowing he'd made his point with Reichen and stolen the female he loved.

He couldn't have been more stunned to learn that Reichen had reappeared in Berlin later that year. To the younger male's credit, after what was likely a very bitter lesson learned, he stayed well away from Hamburg, and from Claire. Until the past summer, when the human whore who'd been Reichen's latest lover began snooping around in Roth's affairs. He'd had no patience to deal with Reichen again, and so he'd sent a very swift, clear message to the Berlin Darkhaven where Reichen and his kin lived. Swift and clear, but not quite thorough enough, as the attack had left Reichen alive. Not again, Roth vowed. When he next got Andreas Reichen in his sights, the son of a bitch was going down. So much the better if he could send Claire to her death alongside him. Pleasantly sadistic musings of just how he might accomplish those two goals were swirling in his head when the cell phone in his coat pocket went off. "Yes, sire." "I trust your operation is proceeding as planned," Dragos said, his tone practically daring Roth to disappoint him. "The persion is perfectly under control, sire. As I promised you it would be." Dragos grunted. "Keep it that way. I am nearly finished with the preparations here. Soon the new objective will be under way."

"Very good, sire," Roth said. "I will continue with the plan we discussed and await your further command."