Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Nine)

Andreas, wait." He didn't wait. No, he wouldn't even look at her. Spinning around, he was at the door faster than her human eyes could follow the motion. He threw the door open to the cold night. Stepped onto the concrete stoop outside. "Andre…" The brief glance he cast at her over his shoulder was feral and hot. His fangs gleamed stark white, frighteningly large. Claire could still feel their sharp points at the tender spot on her neck. If she lived a hundred more years, she didn't think she would ever forget the shocking, sensual pain of his bite. Or the pleasure. God, the searing, wondrous rush of pleasure to feel Andreas suckling from her vein. It had damned them both in an instant. She knew it, and so did he; the truth of it had been written across the taut lines of his face, and was now, in the tormented glow of his gaze as he paused to stare at her under the light of the streetlamps. She was not his to claim. Claire had to remind herself of that fact when her legs started to move instinctively toward him. She belonged to another by blood and vow, if not by love.

Another who would have felt the emotional spike in Claire's body as if it were his own. According to Breed law, there was no greater sin than to betray the sacrament of the blood bond. But as Andreas wheeled around and leapt off the stoop, and Claire ran to the door only in time to see him disappear into the night, she knew a far worse sin. The sin of having given herself to someone as his blood-bonded mate while her heart still yearned for another. Thirty years ago, she had been a young woman barely into her twenties–naive about so many things, not the least of which was the existence of another race of beings that thrived on blood and darkness, incredible beings that were somehow human … yet far from it. She had been a student abroad on her own for the first time when she was assaulted by a vampire in this very district of Hamburg. She'd been spared from the bite by another like him, not a crude beast who lunged at her from the shadows but a tall, golden, sophisticated gentleman named Wilhelm Roth. He took her into his home–his Darkhaven, as she would learn it was called–and offered her his protection while she was in the city. Claire had liked Wilhelm Roth and his mate, a timid young woman named Ilsa who bore the same odd birthmark on her ankle as Claire had on the side of her neck. Claire learned a lot in those first few weeks of living among the Breed as Wilhelm Roth's ward, including the fact that it was entirely possible for her to fall in love with one of their kind, which is exactly what happened once she met Andreas Reichen. After four months together, she'd been devastated when Andreas had abruptly vanished from her life.

Wilhelm Roth had given her a strong shoulder to lean on. Not long afterward it had been Claire's turn to offer him support, when he lost Ilsa to a Rogue vampire attack. Claire had known even then that compassion and sympathy were hardly the same thing as love. Wilhelm hadn't seemed to mind that her heart was still broken and bleeding for Andreas when he pressed her to be his mate later that year. Then again, it wasn't even a week after they were blood bonded and mated that Wilhelm moved her out to the country while he remained in Hamburg. What a terrible, foolish mistake she'd made. She knew that now–a bitter lesson when her head was filled with doubts about Wilhelm and her heart was breaking all over again for Andreas. Claire was still reeling from that understanding as a black SUV screeched to a halt at the curb below her.

Two heavily armed Enforcement Agents climbed out of the vehicle and caught her in the blinding beam of a flashlight. "Frau Roth?" one of them asked, clearly surprised to find her there. "We were alerted by silent alarm to a break-in at the office. Are you all right?" She didn't know if she responded or not. She felt numb, adrift… bereft. "Is anyone else in the building?" the other guard asked her. "Are you alone here, Frau Roth? How did you manage to escape the madman who's been wreaking bloody havoc the past couple of nights?" Claire had no answers for them. All she wanted to do was run after Andreas, but the two big, well-armed agents kept her close as they ushered her back inside and began a search of the place. "Don't worry," one of them assured her. "This nightmare is all over now. We, along with Director Roth, are going to get the bastard who attacked your home and put him down like the rabid dog he is." "That's right," agreed the second man, smiling as if to reassure her. "You'll see. Soon you'll be someplace safe, as if none of the past two nights ever happened." Claire excused herself to the bathroom and sat in the darkness, trying not to scream.

In an underground facility hidden below an unspoiled forest in southern New England, a creature that did not belong to this age– or, in fact, this Earth–bared its enormous fangs and let out a bone-jarring roar. Seven feet tall, hairless and naked except for the thick tangle of undulating skin markings that covered it from head to toe, the Ancient was an awesome, terrible sight to behold. All the more so as it paced the cylindrical UV prison that confined it, murder blazing from the thin pupils nestled in pits of fiery amber. Watching from a safe distance above in the observation room of the high-tech laboratory wing, Wilhelm Roth was distracted by a sudden, simple truth: His Breedmate was betraying him with Andreas Reichen. Roth's senses told him the instant she'd bled for Reichen. The taste of it was acid on his tongue. Like the captive Ancient in the other room, Roth shook with the sudden urge to bellow in wild rage, but he clamped his molars together and bit back his fury. Even now he could feel Claire's torment, the spike of her emotions–her confusion and despair–reverberating in his own veins. That she still pined for Reichen came as no surprise to him. She'd tried very hard to banish her feelings for him all these years, but her will was weak and her blood had easily given her away. Not that Roth had ever particularly cared about Claire's faithless heart. Love was a fleeting, fickle emotion that he'd never had much use for. Ambition and drive, possessions and winning… these were the things he valued. And he was a damned sore loser.

"The Ancient has been denied feeding for twenty-one days," said the Breed male who watched with Roth from the windowed observation room above. His name was Dragos, although he'd gone by another name, one of several aliases, when he first approached Roth about joining his revolution. Or, rather, his evolution, as Dragos's plan was intended to elevate the Breed from the shadowy underworld they were forced to inhabit now, to a place of supreme power over mankind. One that would see Dragos and a few of his hand- picked associates at the helm.

"The prolonged lack of sustenance is painful, of course," Dragos continued, "but in another few days, his bodily functions will begin to slow to a suitable level. We've been administering regular doses of sedatives to speed the process along, but unfortunately with this type of operation, time is the only proven, most certain method… do tell me if I'm boring you, Herr Roth." Roth snapped himself out of his distraction. He inclined his head in a nod that was full of careful respect. "Not at all, sire." It was suicide to piss Dragos off, and based on the Breed male's outwardly pleasant tone, he was positively seething. "You're beginning to concern me, Roth.

Is the trouble you've been having lately with that pest back home in Germany perting your attention away from more important matters?" Although it grated, he lowered his head even farther. "No, sire. Not in the least." Dragos knew about the destruction of Roth's Darkhaven in Hamburg and the country house. He knew Roth's mate had been caught up in the violence, but he knew nothing of the fact that she and the one perpetrating the assaults had a history together. Roth had his own history with Reichen, too. A hatred that began months before Claire entered the picture, though he often wondered if Reichen understood the depth of his enmity, or the lengths to which Roth had been willing to go in order to see Reichen suffer for it. He had to rein in the current situation back home in Hamburg, and that meant making sure that Andreas Reichen met a swift, certain, and preferably painful, demise. Roth lifted his head to meet the hard stare of his commander. "You've no cause for concern whatsoever, sire. Our mission is my only priority."

"Good." Dragos's shrewd gaze drilled into him. "See that it is, Herr Roth." On the other side of the viewing window, the Ancient let loose with another agonized howl. Dragos watched, unflinching, as the creature who was his father's father clawed at himself and shrieked in pain. "I've no further need of you at this time," Dragos murmured without looking at Roth.

"I will look for a report of your current status later this evening." "Yes, sire," Roth hissed through a tightly held smile. That smile turned to a sneer as he exited the lab and headed out to attend his business for Dragos.

When his cell phone rang in his pocket, it was all he could do not to crush the thing in his fist as he stormed through the bunker. "What is it," he snapped into the receiver. He listened, blood boiling in his veins, as an Enforcement Agent from Hamburg informed him that they had his Breedmate safely in custody. "Is she alone?" "Yes, Director Roth. And by some miracle, she appears to be unharmed. We have her with us here at your office in the Speicherstadt." "Excellent." Roth turned into an unoccupied supply room and closed the door behind him. "Put her on the line. I would have a word with her."

Claire wanted to ignore the Enforcement Agent knocking on the bathroom door, but she couldn't hide in there forever. No more than she could avoid talking to Wilhelm, who was apparently on the phone right now, waiting to speak with her. "Frau Roth," called the agent. "Is everything all right in there?" She got up from the floor where she'd been sitting and went over to open the door. As she came out of the dark room, the agent thrust his cell phone toward her. She took it. Slowly brought it up to her ear. As soon as she heard Wilhelm's breath blowing hotly across the receiver, she knew that he was furious with her. Her veins jangled a warning that she had no patience to acknowledge. "You lied to me," she said by way of greeting. "But then, you've lied about many things, haven't you?" His answering scoff was as sharp as a blade. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"The men you sent to the house earlier tonight. They had no intention of taking Andreas out of there peacefully. You sent a death squad to kill him." "Andreas Reichen is a very dangerous inpidual," came the icy reply. "I was only thinking of your safety, Claire." "Really?" Her voice climbed up slightly, enough to draw anxious looks from her Enforcement Agency watchdogs. "If my safety was anything of an issue to you, then why did you insist that I stay there with him? You practically thrust me at him." A low-toned, amused chuckle grated across her nerves. "Truthfully, I don't see the point of your distress, darling.

You did manage to come out of the situation with your pretty neck unscathed, I assume." Claire dismissed the obviously weighted comment with a tight shake of her head. She wasn't going to let him shame her when he made her sick with anger and revulsion and not a little fear. "What about the girl from Aphrodite, Wilhelm? Did she walk away from you unscathed?" Silence stretched on the other end of the line and it gave Claire the courage to keep going, to lay everything out in one rush of breath. "What do you know about the attack on Andreas's Darkhaven, Wilhelm? Did you have something to do with that?" She practically choked on the awful words. "Did you send a Minion into his home with a death squad on orders to kill everyone inside? Are you the cold-blooded murderer he says you are?" "For Christ's sake, Claire. Listen to yourself. You are spewing a lot of paranoid nonsense." "Am I?" She heard the hesitancy in his voice. She could practically hear the wheels in his shrewd mind turning, calculating his errors and how to smooth them over. "What is this thing between you and Andreas? Has he threatened to expose you in some way, or is this personal … because of the past?" "I could care less about the past," he replied, utterly devoid of emotion.

"And unless I miss my guess, Claire, this thing between Reichen and me became about as personal as it could get just a short time ago. What kind of mate would I be to you if I let him defile the sanctity of our bond and simply walk away uncontested? There's not a male alive in the entire Breed nation who would deny me the right to defend your honor." Oh, God. He was right. If the violence Andreas had orchestrated the past few weeks was not reason enough, in drinking from her, a blood-bonded Breedmate, he had just written his own death warrant. Claire swallowed the lump of dread that crawled into her throat. "You've never loved me, Wilhelm. Have you? Why did you want me for your mate? Why do you care what I do now, when I have never truly been a part of your life? Our bond has never been anything but a farce–" "If you are looking for a way to justify your actions, Claire, you are sorely mistaken. The fact is, you are my mate. If and when I get my hands on Andreas Reichen, I will demand the full rights due me.

You may count on that." She could hear the danger in his tone and knew from the sharp way he'd cut her off that she would find no mercy in him whatsoever. She had never been one to cower, but the thought of him sending more of his death dealers into the city after Andre made her heart squeeze like it was in a vise. "Wilhelm, please …" "Don't beg me, Claire. Not for him," he snapped, full of venom. "Put the agent back on the phone now. You're going to go with the Enforcement Agents to their headquarters and help them in their pursuit of this … animal." "Wilhelm, no–" "Put the agent on the phone, goddamn you!" She didn't have to get the armed guards' attention.

Both of them gaped at her as Wilhelm's furious outburst ricocheted across the room. One of the agents came over to her and extracted the phone from her reluctant grasp. He listened for only a moment before he motioned the other guard over to Claire and instructed him not to let her leave their custody. Claire's heart banged in her chest as the agent wrapped up the private conversation. She could see the confusion and sympathy in the Breed male's eyes as he hung up and came toward her with the steady calm of a soldier accustomed to handling difficult situations. "You need to come with us now," he told her gently but firmly "We have orders, Frau Roth. I'm sorry."

"No." He reached for her and Claire's panic spiked. "I won't go with you. Take your hands off me!" The second agent moved in, his expression grave. "Let's not make this difficult, all right?" Claire wrenched her arm out of the bruising grasp. She took two lunging steps away from them, fully prepared to bolt if she could just reach the door. She didn't even come close. One guard was there before she had a chance to blink.

The other came up behind her and shoved something hard and cold against the small of her back. She felt the searing bite of the taser for only an instant before the shock took her legs out from under her. She crashed to the floor on a broken scream, pain rippling through her. "Pick her up," she heard one of them say from above her. "I'll go open the vehicle." Claire felt large, hard hands hoist her to her feet. She heard the apartment door open, felt the incoming chill of night air skate across the floor from outside. Then a low grunt and a sick, sodden sound of someone choking, gasping, sputtering for breath. The agent holding on to Claire let go as he faced whatever it was that now stood on the threshold of the open door. "What the fuck!" Claire lifted her head and couldn't hold back her cry of stunned relief. Andreas.

Oh, God… he came back for her. His big body blocked the doorway, his eyes blazing, fangs glistening white with menace. At his feet lay the bleeding corpse of the agent who'd tasered her, his throat brutally skewered and all but severed by a length of twisted black wrought iron. As the second agent drew his weapon and prepared to fire, Andreas stalked inside and fired on him with his companion's gun, killing him with the swift, deadly aim of a sniper. Then he was at her side as if nothing else existed. "Claire…Jesus Christ," he said, his voice gruff, his expression as grave as she'd ever seen it. He smoothed his hands over her face, touching every inch of her as if he feared she was broken. His strong fingers trembled against her skin. For one moment she thought–desperately hoped–he might kiss her again. "Are you hurt?" She shook her head, feeling wobbly and unstable until Andreas wrapped his arm around her shoulders and guided her away from the blood and death on the floor.

"We're not safe in the city now," she told him. "I just talked to Wilhelm. He knows that I'm with you. He knows that you drank from me tonight." Andreas's mouth compressed tightly. Something dark flashed in his eyes. Remorse, perhaps? Was it regret? "I don't think either one of us is safe from him now," she said. He stared at her for a long moment, an intense, searching look. Then he gave her a curt nod. "You're coming with me, Claire. No matter what happens, I will keep you safe."