Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Sixteen)

The next morning, while Reichen stayed behind and tried not to be paranoid about danger lurking on every street corner or alleyway Claire left the house with their remaining euros and drove into town to exchange the money and pick up some food for herself and fresh clothing for both of them. Reichen had attempted to persuade her into waiting until evening when he could go with her–just in case she ran into trouble–but she brushed him off with a look and left him sitting in the big empty house by himself. He had forgotten how independent she was, and a part of him admired the fact that several decades under Roth's thumb hadn't stolen any of her spirit. Still, he worried. He knew she was safe from Roth or Dragos or any other members of the Breed so long as it was daytime and the sun would keep all of his kind locked indoors. But the protective part of him–the part of him that had yet to accept that he wasn't still the leader of a Darkhaven, responsible for keeping his home and family safe from harm–balked at the idea of Claire walking around out there without him looking out for her.

She was too precious, too vulnerable in a world filled with hidden dangers. She was a treasure worth preserving at any cost. And she was… not his. Damn, but it took some effort to remember that, especially after last night. They'd spent an incredible evening together, making love in the living room overlooking the Atlantic, then again upstairs, on the four-poster bed in the palatial room that had been Claire's when she was a young woman living in her grandmother's house. And yet another time before daybreak this morning, after she'd gotten up to ensure that all the blinds and curtains were drawn tight to protect him from the sun. He'd have liked to have followed her into the shower before she left to run her errands, but she'd gently chided him to pace himself, that they would have plenty of time together. But they didn't have that luxury, and he knew it. It was easy to imagine that their reunion–this respite in an idyllic setting, without the constant reminders of the darkness they'd left behind in Germany– could go on forever. It couldn't. As good as it felt to be with Claire again, they couldn't stay in Newport together for long. Until Roth was found and eliminated, she needed to be somewhere protected and well out of his reach. She wasn't going to like it, but so long as Roth was alive and able to get his hands on her, she needed to be placed under the guard of the Order. The sooner the better. As for Reichen, each minute he wasn't looking for Roth was an opportunity for the bastard to dig in deeper wherever he was and continue his presumed machinations alongside Dragos. Reichen knew he should be spending every breathing moment and exhausting every effort to hunt Roth down.

Vengeance still burned in his belly and his issue with Wilhelm Roth would not be forgiven simply because he had Claire to warm his heart and his bed. Roth could not be permitted to continue breathing when he was evil to his core. Nor so long as he might decide to punish Claire for letting herself be pulled back into Reichen's life again. With that grave thought fueling him, he took out the cell phone Tegan had given him and pressed the last number in the speed dial queue. The number rang twice before Gideon's British-tinged accent came on the line. "Talk to me," he said, chipper despite the intrusion on his morning. "It's Reichen. I apologize for not phoning last night." "No worries. Where are you?" Naked from his recent shower, he leaned back on a shrouded chair. "Newport, Rhode Island." "You find your female?" "Yes," Reichen answered, not bothering to clarify that she wasn't, in fact, his at all. "Everything is fine. Claire is safe, and so am I. Have you found anything yet on Roth?"

"Nothing yet, but we're working on it. I'm running down a couple of international leads right now. Trust me, we want to get this bastard as badly as you do. He may be our most solid link to Dragos at the moment, so we're hitting hard on every bit of intel we can gather on him." As Gideon spoke, Reichen considered the fact that he should be there with the warriors, digging into every clue on Roth's whereabouts and helping them flush the son of a bitch out. He was eager to do just that, his palms itching with the need to choke the life out of Roth for all he'd done. "So, what's the story over there in Newport?" Gideon asked.

"You gonna be delayed there for a while yet?" "No," he said, even though he'd been torn between what his heart wanted him to say and what his duty demanded. "No more delaying. I need to smooth a few things out on this end, but Claire and I can be ready for pickup later tonight if that can be arranged." "No problem. I can have one of the guys there about an hour after sundown." Reichen scowled, calculating the short span of hours that would leave him for breaking the news to Claire that he was going to be yanking her out of her home. Again. "I may need a bit more time than that, Gideon. Claire doesn't know I've called you, or that she's going to be leaving Newport tonight. She's just left one gilded cage; I have a feeling she won't be eager to be put into another one." "Ah." The warrior blew out a shallow sigh. "Hence the smoothing out of a few things, eh? Well, good luck with that." "Right," Reichen replied, knowing it was a conversation he had to have with Claire eventually, but dreading it all the same. "I'll be in touch later about scheduling that pickup." As he disconnected the call, the front door lock slid open. Claire came in, cautiously peering inside the house to make sure he wouldn't be in the path of the light that spilled in around her. "Hi," she said, smiling as she closed the door and he stood to greet her. "You're naked." "And you should be," he said, struck by how rapidly his body responded to just the sight of her. "How was the shopping?"

"Successful." She lifted two filled grocery bags in one hand and an armful of department store bags in the other. "One of these bags is for you," she said, holding up the one bearing a men's clothing store logo.

"One is a set of sheets and pillows, and the rest is for me. I can't wait to put on something fresher than these stale old things from home." Reichen walked toward her, his intentions blatantly clear. "I think I should help you." Her answering smile was quicksilver and playful. It killed him that he was going to have to take that away from her. "You'll have to catch me first." She dropped the groceries in the foyer and bolted for the stairs with the clothing bags rustling at her side. Reichen lunged after her, taking one step to every three of hers. He caught her halfway up to the second floor. Her startled shriek dissolved into laughter… then, before long, the breathless moans and sighs of a woman well pleasured and fully sated.

That evening, as Claire toweled off from a long, hot shower, her body was still humming from the hours of lovemaking she'd spent with Andreas. She walked out of the en suite bathroom and found him lounging like a negligent king on the bed. One long, muscular leg was stretched out to the end of the mattress, the other bent casually at the knee. He was propped up on the pillows, his right arm tucked behind his head. The glyphs on his torso, arms, and thighs were still alive with color, but slowly muting toward the golden hue of his skin. And even at rest, his sex was impressive. She couldn't get used to seeing him naked; it always stopped her dead in her tracks so she could pause to admire him. The slow curve of his lips said he knew precisely what the sight of him did to her, and his male ego–not to mention other parts–were proud to be noticed so regularly and appreciatively.

Claire broke the spell his naked body seemed to cast over her and walked to pick up the fresh clothes she'd set out for herself. She slanted him a wry look as she pulled the tags off the pair of jeans and the pale gray sweater. "You're bad for me, you know that?" "Undoubtedly," he replied, but while she was joking, he seemed grimly sober. He seemed preoccupied somehow, as though dark thoughts weighed him down. She was about to ask him what was wrong when he got up off the bed and walked toward her, bringing a clingy black wool skirt with him. "Wear this tonight instead of the jeans. The tall boots with the heels, too." She looked up at him, uncertain.

"I want to take you out. You can show me around your old hometown." "A date?" she asked, undeniably thrilled by the idea. Part of her wondered about the fact that the whole day had passed without Andreas mentioning Wilhelm Roth or the business with the Order that still awaited him in Boston. Not that Claire wanted any of those things to intrude on their time together, but she wasn't naive enough to think that a few hours of sex–really amazing sex–would make him forget the vengeance that was driving him. As she looked at him, she knew a moment of worry that this was perhaps a pleasant lull before a storm. That she might wake up and find this brief escape with Andreas had just been a dream. She waited for this perfect slice of time to shatter and fall to pieces around her feet. But Andreas's smile now was just as charming as ever, even more so, when her body was still warm and buzzing in the afterglow of his lovemaking. "It's been a long time since I asked you out on a proper date, Claire. Will you accept?"

"Yes." She nodded enthusiastically. "I'd love to." "Get dressed," he said. "I'll shower and meet you downstairs." Giddy as a schoolgirl with a new crush, she put on the skirt and sweater, then zipped into the sexy black boots and floated down to the living room to wait for him. When he came down a few minutes later, freshly showered, shaved, and dressed, his brown hair damp and tousled around his face, Claire's heart did a little flip in her chest. He looked amazing in the charcoal gray trousers and black silk shirt she bought him. So amazing, all she wanted to do was strip him naked and have her wicked way with him all over again. "Ready?" he asked. She nodded and took his outstretched hand. It was a pleasant night outside, crisp but clear as they walked the short distance into Newport's historic downtown. Much had changed since the last time Claire had been home some twenty years ago. Quaint boutiques, mom-and-pop stores, and greasy-spoon restaurants had been crowded out by hotels and timeshares, retail clothing chains, and swanky fine dining. But pockets of the old hometown still remained, even down by the wharfs, Claire's favorite part of Newport. The town docks were a magical place, especially at night. Bobbing gently on the dark, incoming tide was an eclectic mix of millionaire yachts and sailboats tied alongside weathered commercial fishers and the ubiquitous harbor tour boats.

Galleries, shops, and restaurants lined the bricked pedestrian alleys that led to the wharfs, everything aglow with soft yellow lights and vibrant with the sounds of laughter and conversation as crowds of late-autumn tourists strolled and perused, just as Claire and Andreas were doing. Out there, among this vast, anonymous humanity and so very far away from the trauma and violence of the life she'd left behind just a couple nights past, Claire could almost close her eyes and imagine a peaceful future. So much the better with her hand caught gently in Andreas's strong grasp. With him beside her like this, she could almost pretend that they were still a couple, still in love as they had been before, with nothing but adventure and happiness ahead of them. Claire tried not to think about Wilhelm Roth. She could no longer think of him as her mate, if he'd ever truly filled that role. She knew he was dangerous–all the more so now that he was aware she'd lain with Andreas. He'd made his displeasure known last night, when he sent her a stab of physical pain through the blood connection she shared with him. His message couldn't have been more clear if he'd carved it into her flesh. Mate or not, Wilhelm Roth was now her enemy as much as he was Andreas's. That troubling thought clung to her as she and Andreas stepped into a gourmet chocolate shop adjacent to the wharf. "Come here," he said, leading her to the gleaming glass cases that contained a mouthwatering assortment of confections.

Claire looked at him quizzically, knowing the Breed's digestive systems could not process human foods except in the most minuscule quantities and generally only to effect the appearance of being human themselves. Which was a terrible pity, she thought, looking at the collection of chocolates that dazzled the eye and tempted the tastebuds. "Which one would you like to try first?" She bit her lip, hard-pressed to decide. "The glossy one with the red stripes looks good. Ooh, so does the little square with the flecks of gold on it. And the one with the coconut on top." While she was vascillating between her choices, a balding, middle-aged man came out of the back of the store carrying a supply of empty gift boxes. He gave them a polite smile and a nod of greeting as he set down his things behind the counter.

"Another fine Indian summer evening," he said. "Could I help you folks with something?" "The lady would like to try some of your chocolates," Andreas said. "Of course. Which ones are you interested in, my dear?" Claire glanced up and met the kindly gaze of the shopkeeper. "May I try the little chocolate square?" He nodded and reached into the case to retrieve one for her. "An excellent choice. It's our signature piece." Claire took a small bite and savored the sweet-tart taste of dark, high-percentage cocoa. It melted like butter on her tongue. "Oh, my God," she murmured around the bliss exploding in her mouth. "It's wonderful." The shopkeeper smiled at her, his eyes seeming to linger on her face for a long moment before he glanced to Andreas. "For you, sir?" "No, thank you. But please give her whatever she likes." The man chuckled.

"A wise philosophy." Claire pointed to the puffy chocolate painted with dark red stripes. "What's this one?" "Dark chocolate with raspberry puree. Would you like one?" There was that studying glance again. And as Claire looked at him now, she felt the tiniest flicker of recognition. "I'm sorry," he said, frowning. "Have we met?" "No, I don't think so." He chuckled, scratching his grizzled chin. "You just look like someone I knew a long time ago. The spitting image, in fact." "Is that right?" Claire asked, her attention drifting down to the brass-plated name tag that bore the store's logo and the shopkeeper's name: Robert Vincent. "I don't believe I know you." "It's the darnedest thing. You look exactly like a classmate of mine from high school. Does the name Claire Samuels mean anything to you?" Beside her now, Andreas had gone stock still and deadly silent. Claire blinked, startled to hear her maiden name come out of the man's mouth. Of course she could have been classmates with him. She'd left the States to study abroad when she was twenty. If not for Wilhelm Roth's blood and the unusual chemical makeup of her own body, she would show similar outward signs of middle age. Instead, she looked essentially the same as she had thirty years ago. "M-my mother," she stammered. "You must be thinking of my mother." "Ah!" His smile went even wider now. "Your mother, of course. Good Lord, you could be her twin." Claire smiled.

"I hear that from time to time." "We should be on our way," Andreas interjected, a dark tone in his voice. "How is your mother?" the shopkeeper asked. "Good," Claire replied. "She's been living overseas for many years." "I used to have such a thing for her back in school. She was the prettiest girl in our class–one of the kindest, too. And brother, did she know how to play the piano. That's where I first met her, you see.

I was the conductor's assistant in our high school symphony." "Buddy Vincent," Claire blurted, remembering the endearing but awkward boy as she stared into the time-worn face of an aging, mortal man. "She's mentioned me to you, then?" He beamed. Andreas cleared his throat impatiently, but Claire ignored it. "You were always very sweet," she told Buddy, recalling how he'd often tried to make her feel welcome and special at a time when being different wasn't always the easiest thing. "It meant a lot to her that you were her friend." "Well," he said, his thin chest puffing out a bit now. He walked over to pick up one of the small gift boxes and began filling it with several pieces of the two chocolates that had caught Claire's eye. "It was never a chore being nice to a beautiful young lady. When you speak to her next, please tell your mother I send my best." "I will," Claire said. He came back and handed her the filled box. "Enjoy these, with my compliments." "Are you sure?" "We'll pay for them," Andreas said at the same time. "How much are they?" Buddy only shook his head. "I wouldn't dream of taking your money. Please. They're a gift." Claire reached out and gave his hand a gentle squeeze. "Thank you, Buddy. It was a pleasure seeing you."

"You take care now. You and your beautiful mother both." Claire said a polite good-bye to her former classmate, and Andreas ushered her outside in an oddly brooding silence. More than that, he seemed downright irritated about something. "Are you…jealous?" He snorted. "Please." "You are!" Claire threw her head back and laughed. "Oh, I don't believe this. You walk through a crowd and every head turns, female and male alike. I happen to catch the eye of a harmless old man–" "No man is harmless, Claire." "Buddy Vincent is easily fifty years old and as sweet as a kitten," she pointed out, still smiling and thoroughly amused. "He's still male," Andreas all but growled. "And he is still watching us." "Yeah?" Claire grabbed the front of his shirt to get his attention. "Then why don't you stop looking at him and kiss me instead." With a dark gaze that promised more than kisses, Andreas did exactly what she asked.