Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Five)

Reichen stood over her in silence, his hands braced on the arms of a moss green wingback chair in one of the estate's receiving rooms, where Claire had fallen asleep. For a moment, when he'd first come to alone in the pitch-dark cellar, he hadn't the first clue where he was or how he'd gotten there. Nor could he immediately recall why it was that most of his body was recovering from UV burns. It was like that for him sometimes, after the pyrokinetic energy faded. Hard to remember details. Hard to make sense of his surroundings. Hard to know anything except the fierce blood thirst that overtook him once his inner fire had a chance to cool. He had been disoriented when he first regained consciousness in the cellar, but then he'd breathed in the softest trace scent of vanilla and warm spices. Claire. Her blood scent had drawn him out of the dark and up the flight of stone steps, into the room where she dozed now.

He breathed her in as he loomed over her, tempted to close his eyes and savor the memory of what had been, but instead he barely blinked. He watched the quick, darting movement of her eyes beneath her closed lids. She was dreaming. Reichen wondered how long she'd been sleeping, or where her dreams had carried her that her pulse would be beating as rapidly as a skittish hare's. His thirsting gaze drifted down from the delicate beauty of her face to the smooth golden brown skin of her throat. Ticking frantically at the right side of her neck, her artery beat beside a small scarlet-colored birthmark. Reichen's fangs were already filling his mouth, but now they throbbed, his eyes rooted on that tender patch of flesh with its diminutive teardrop- and-crescent-moon symbol riding so close to Claire's pulse. Jesus, he was parched. His belly was tight and empty, his limbs heavy and fatigued. He licked his lips, hardly able to keep himself from leaning in a bit closer, until the light beat of her pulse was banging in his own veins as loud and demanding as a drum. God, he thirsted… so deeply that the need was primal, animal, urging him to sweep in and take his fill like the predator he truly was.

That it was Claire beneath him was the only thing that made him pause. How long had he wondered what she would taste like? How many times had he come this close–hell, even closer than this–to pressing his fangs into her buttery soft skin and drinking from her vein? He'd wanted that more than anything at one time. But it was the one thing he'd never done, not even in their most fevered moments together. As much as he'd hungered to taste her, to bond her to him through blood, he had never taken his need for Claire that far. She was a Breedmate. Unlike the larger percentage of Homo sapiens females walking the planet, she was one of a small number bearing unusual blood and DNA properties. Claire and those like her, born with the crimson stamp somewhere on their bodies, were also uniquely gifted with extraordinary psychic abilities. And, unlike other human women, they had the ability to form an unbreakable bond with members of the Breed and bear their young. When a Breedmate offered her blood to one of Reichen's kind, it was a precious gift–the most sacred of all. It forged a bond that could be severed only by death. Reichen couldn't lie to himself and pretend that he'd never been tempted. But he'd hardly been the kind to settle down, especially then. For all his libertine ways, and as laughable as it seemed to him now, his honor had prevented him from taking something from Claire that could never be called back.

One sip of her blood meant she would live in him for as long as he drew breath. He would be bound to her always, drawn to her always, regardless of any vow she'd made to another male. Even through the smoke and fog of his recovering mind, he could still recall how hard it had been to exercise control where his hunger for Claire was concerned. But he'd been careful. As hard as it was, he'd been a pillar of restraint, right to the end. If he'd known then that she was going to waste so little time giving herself to Wilhelm Roth…? Reichen growled just thinking on it. His fury wasn't so cooled that he didn't entertain the idea of slaking his thirst on her right there and then. He leaned in, unable to tear his hungering eyes away from the rhythmic beat of her pulse. Her scent beckoned him as much as the rush of her blood beneath her skin. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. This close, she robbed him of breath. Made him ache to touch her. Jesus Christ, she made him burn far worse than sunlight or fury. It stunned him to realize that he wanted her still, after all this time. After all her mate had done to destroy him. He wanted Claire for his own… still. Reichen drew in a rough breath of air, his lips peeling back off his fangs. He wanted her, and, by God, he would take her. "No," he growled to himself. "Damn it, no." Claire's eyes snapped open and went wide. She gasped, drawing back as far as she could get from him with the chair blocking her escape.

Her dark brown eyes searched his face, too intelligent to misunderstand what had nearly happened. Reichen mentally yanked himself to heel, despite the hunger that was still making his gums throb with the urge to feed. "Pleasant dreams, Frau Roth?" "Not at all," she answered, staring hard at him. "After what happened here last night, I'm sure I'll be having nightmares for a long time to come." A pang of shame jabbed him, but he ignored it. He had to keep his eye on the ball. "You didn't happen to pay a dreamtime visit to your mate just now, did you?" Claire didn't so much as blink. He could see the recollection in her steady gaze, the realization that although many years had passed since they last saw each other, Reichen had not forgotten her special psychic ability. Her cheeks darkened a bit, and he wondered if she was thinking of all the times she had dreamwalked into some of his most erotic REM fantasies during those intense, passionate few months in which they'd fallen in love. He had not forgotten a single moment they'd shared, awake or joined in dreams, and he had damn sure tried. "Wilhelm doesn't like it when I intrude on his dreams," she murmured. "That's not really a denial," Reichen replied. He kept his hands braced on the arms of the chair, trapping her there while he continued his interrogation. "Where is he, Claire?" "I told you, I don't know." "But you do have some idea," he said, trying not to be distracted by his hunger or his sudden, growing awareness of just how close their bodies were to each other. He could feel her heat mingling with his own, making his healing, irradiated skin feel as though it were being touched by flame.

"Make no mistake, I will find him. The others weren't able to run, nor will he." She looked wary, repelled. "What… others?" "His faithful hounds, the ones who carried out his orders with no regard for innocent lives. I've put them all down, one by one. Not him, not yet. I've saved him for last because I wanted him to know that I was coming. I wanted him to understand that he was going to have to pay for what he did." Claire swallowed, gave a small shake of her head. "What you said last night–that Wilhelm is responsible for what happened to your Darkhaven… you are mistaken, Andreas. You have to be mistaken." "What I said is the truth." "It can't be–" "Why not?" he snapped. "Because that will mean you're mated not only to a known thug but a cold-blooded murderer, as well?" Her slender dark brows came together in an expression somewhere between pity and contempt. "This coming from someone whose own hands are stained with more than a dozen lives?" Reichen reeled back, bristling at the reminder.

He took a few steps away from her, then pivoted to begin a tense pace out of the room. He didn't know where he was going. He didn't damn well care. He knew he couldn't leave the house while it was daylight outside, and right now it felt like a cage. Claire drifted out behind him, her footsteps all but silent on the polished marble floor of the hall. "Andreas, I know you must be terribly hurt and confused after everything you've been through. We can try to sort all of this out later. Right now you need some peace and quiet while your body is healing from the UV burns. You need rest–" "What I need right now is blood," he snarled, swiveling a hard, amber-eyed look on her. "Since you're so reluctant to surrender Roth to me, I don't suppose you'd be willing to let me take my fill of you either." She blanched, appalled, just as he wanted her to be. Reichen continued his impatient prowl of the hallway, noting the assorted photographs and framed art on the walls. With his anger stoked, he looked for images of Claire and Roth, the adoring couple, eager for more kindling for the fury that still burned in his gut. There were only a handful of photos of them together, often among a group of Darkhaven or Enforcement Agency members, or in front of ribbon-cutting ceremonies taking place at various evening events. Claire's smile was perfect in each one: pleasant without being overly excited, polite without being overly cool. Reichen didn't know that smile.

It seemed as polished and brittle as the glass that overlaid it. "Where does Roth conduct his business here?" he asked her, turning away from frozen, perfect Claire to look at the woman who stood behind him now, well out of arm's reach. "If he has computers here, or any type of files, I want to see them." "You won't find anything like that here," she said, simply stated fact. "Wilhelm does all of his personal business from the Hamburg Darkhaven and an office he keeps in the city… as far as I know. We've never discussed his business affairs." Reichen grunted, unsurprised. He was already moving past another room off the hallway, glancing in at the casually sophisticated furnishings of a living room, then passing by an intimate ballroom that seemed a cavern of mirrored walls, polished parquet flooring, and a creamy, elegantly carved ceiling. In back was an ebony grand piano, its multiple reflections gleaming in all the surrounding polished glass. "Good to see some things haven't changed," he muttered. Claire glanced into the ballroom but looked confused. "The piano," he said. "You have a gift for music, as I recall." Her frown faltered slightly as she stared at him. "Oh, I don't… I haven't played in a long time. I suppose I got busy with other, more important things. Music isn't really a part of my life anymore." "No, I guess not," he said, aware of how caustic it sounded. "Is there anything left of you that I would remember, Claire?" A long silence spread between them. Reichen expected her to walk away, or maybe run away, out the front door and into the daylight where he couldn't follow. But she stood her ground, pierced him with her deep brown eyes. Tenacious as ever. "How dare you. I didn't ask you to storm into my life and tear it apart, but here you are. I don't have to explain anything to you, or justify where life has taken me." No, she didn't, and he knew he was being unfair here. Having those answers wasn't going to bring him any closer to Wilhelm Roth, either. Not that any of those arguments meant a damn thing when Claire was just an arm's length away from him and seething with an anger he'd seldom seen in her but rightly deserved. "We both moved on, didn't we, Andre?" "You certainly did." "What did you expect me to do? You were the one who left, remember?"

He thought about the abrupt way he'd left things with her: unfinished, unexplained. He thought about his reasons, ironically none of which mattered anymore. Certainly not after what had happened last night. "I couldn't stay." "You couldn't even tell me why? One day we were together and the next you were gone without a word." "I had things to work out," he said. God, he hated that he was still able to feel the punch of uncontainable fear–of shock and overwhelming self-revulsion–that had forced him to run away from everything and everyone he knew and loved. After what happened to him the last time he saw Claire, he'd had no choice but to leave her. He hadn't wanted to harm her, and he couldn't trust himself to be near her, or near anyone, until he'd managed to control the horrific power that had been awakened in him for the first time all those years ago. By that time, he had already lost her to Roth. He gave her a negligent shrug. "I did come back, Claire." "More than a year later," she replied curtly "Or so I heard, after friends in the Darkhavens told me you had finally turned up, back in Berlin again." She shook her head, regret shining in her gaze. "I didn't think you would ever come back." "So you didn't wait."

"Did you give me any reason to?" "No," he said, letting the word slide slowly off his tongue. There was more he wanted to say, things he probably owed her to say, but it was all pointless talk now. Claire was right. They'd both moved on. They'd both lived very separate lives, and despite the fact that those lives were converging now, in violence and bloodshed, nothing he could say would change a thing about the past or what might have been. He was here for one reason: to avenge the wrong that Wilhelm Roth had delivered on him. Reichen started walking again. Claire trailed him, hanging back now as though she didn't want to get too close. "What are you doing?" "I told you. Looking for any intel on your mate's whereabouts." "And I told you–you won't find anything of his here. This is my home, not his." Reichen heard the peculiar comment but he was already moving on. He saw a room filled with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and headed for that open door. "Andreas," Claire said from behind him. "Please, stop this. The library is my space.

It's private. You won't find anything important in–" "Then you won't mind if I have a look," he said, more intent than ever since she was practically insisting that he stay out. What was she hiding in there? He strode past towering shelf after shelf packed with books, past the small sofa and the end table where a ginger-jar lamp still glowed from the night before. Farther into the room, he saw a dark walnut desk in a mild state of disarray, as if the work had been abandoned in haste. And beyond the desk, spread out on a wide worktable, was some kind of architect's scale model. Reichen guessed it to be some kind of Darkhaven project–something that would probably result in another photograph of Claire and her perfect smile, posing as the perfect mate next to Roth and a number of his cronies. But as he neared the model, the hairs at the back of his neck began to rise. He knew this piece of land. He knew the shape of it, the look of it… the feel of it. It was his. The lakefront wedge of property on the model was the site of his Darkhaven. Or, rather, it had been, before Roth's treachery and Reichen's own despair had left it in ruined rubble. "What the hell is this?" Claire came up beside him, her expression anxious. "Andreas, everyone thought you were dead. There were no heirs alive to claim the property. It was going to be auctioned among the rest of the Berlin vampire community–" "This was my land." His voice took on an odd shake. "This was my home."

"I know," she said quickly. "I know, and I couldn't let it be sold. When some of us in the region held the memorial service for you and your family a few weeks ago and I learned no one had come forward to claim the land, I purchased the property myself. No one knew. I wanted to put something special on it. I hoped it could be a kind of sanctuary in remembrance of the lives that were lost." Reichen stared at the model of the tranquil park with its reflection pools and walking trails and meticulously plotted flower beds. The design was lovely. Perfect. Claire had done this…for him. He was astonished. Struck speechless. "It probably wasn't my place to do it," she said. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't stand the thought of your home–and your kin's lives–being forgotten or sold off to the highest bidder. It didn't seem right.

Then again, what I did probably doesn't seem right to you, either." Reichen stood there, silent, unmoving To say he was shocked by Claire's act of compassion was understatement in the extreme. He was moved–more deeply than he had been in more years than he cared to remember. He stared at the architect's model, seeing all the detail, all the care and thought that had been put into the design. For him, and for the memory of his kin. He slowly turned to Claire, knowing his face must have been as rigid as stone by the way she took a step back. Good, he thought. Good. Keep her away. Because all he wanted to do in that moment was drag her hard into his arms and kiss her until neither one of them could breathe. But she was Roth's mate. His enemy's mate. And he was still dangerous, still too near the razor's edge of hunger. If he touched Claire now, he didn't trust himself to stop there. If he'd been honorable at one time in his life, the fire that had been reawakened inside him three months ago had all but devoured that part of him.

He was a threat to Claire, in far more ways than one. "I need to be alone," he muttered, a throaty snarl of sound. He meant that; he couldn't be around her right now. He didn't want to think about the brief but indelible past he'd had with her, or how swiftly his body–his weak-willed heart, as well–still responded to the mere presence of her. He didn't want to look at her now, as she was moving closer to him, her expression tender and caring, her hand held out as if she wanted to touch him. Something he craved in that moment with every selfish fiber of his being. His pulse hammered hard in his veins. His mouth was wet with hunger for her, his sex going tight and heavy with desire. Only a single pace separated her from him now. He stopped breathing as she lifted her hand up and gently placed it against his chest. "Andreas, I'm sorry.

I didn't mean any harm–" "Get out, Claire." He drew in a breath that hissed through his teeth and fangs. "Now, goddamn it!" She startled at his thunderous bark of anger, jumping back from him as though he might strike her. She blinked up at him for a long moment, her lips parted but unspeaking Then she fled the room without a word. When he was certain she was gone, Reichen drifted over to the library doors and shut them tight. He told himself he was relieved that she was gone. If she valued her well- being at all, she'd leave the house and run as far away from him as she could get. He only prayed he'd be strong enough to resist going after her between now and sundown, when he would have a chance to go out and slake his blood thirst on someone else … anyone else but her.