Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-Eight)

Reichen sat beside Tegan in the backseat of a black Range Rover for what seemed an interminable drive to the northwestern corner of Connecticut. Rio was at the wheel, Nikolai riding shotgun, maintaining constant cell phone contact with Renata since the warriors left Boston some three hours past. Behind them in another SUV was the rest of the team accompanying them on the mission: Kade, Brock, and Hunter. About forty-five minutes ago, they'd turned off the interstate and begun a meandering jog along one rural route after another, following both the coordinates the women had provided and the strength of the blood bonds that would have led Niko and Rio to their mates even without the use of maps and GPS systems. Likewise, Reichen's sensory pull toward Claire was intensifying the farther they drove along the winding stretch of moonlit, two-lane blacktop.

"We just passed the mom-and-pop gas station you mentioned," Niko said into his cell phone as the closed establishment fell behind them in the darkness. "We're coming around the bend now. You should see the Rover's headlights any second. We'll blink them so you know it's us." Up ahead of the vehicle, the road flared brighter as Rio flashed the high beams a couple of times. "Yep, we see you," Niko said when a dark-clothed figure came out of the woods up ahead some hundred yards and waved a signal of her location. Watching from behind Nikolai, Reichen hardly drew breath until Rio had navigated the Rover off the road and onto the wooded access lane where the three Breedmates waited.

His gaze searched out and settled hard on Claire. She looked so vulnerable and out of place surrounded by so much night and dark forest, to say nothing of the fact that Wilhelm Roth could not be far from the very spot where she now stood. But Reichen read only the faintest bit of fear in her. Claire's pulse beat steady and strong in his heart, and her gait was sure as she and her two companions came to meet the vehicle.

No sooner had Rio parked the SUV did he and Niko both jump out to pull their mates into relieved, unhurried embraces. Reichen and Tegan climbed out, as well. Tegan walking around back to greet the second vehicle as it rolled to stop behind them on the wooded dirt lane. Conversations buzzed quietly talk of tactics and strategy, and quick reviews of the established plans for combing the area where Dylan had seen the ghostly Breedmates in the hopes of launching an offensive attack on Dragos's possible hideout. Reichen, meanwhile, couldn't take his eyes off Claire. He drifted over to her, crossing his arms when the urge to wrap them around her felt too strong to deny. He wasn't sure she'd welcome his concern after the way they'd left things at the compound. "Are you all right?" he asked, noticing that she, too, had kept her hands close to herself as he approached.

"My God, Claire. I heard what happened today. You have no idea how worried I've been…" She gave him an unreadable look, taking in his black combat gear and the many weapons supplied him by the Order and holstered on the belt around his hips. Then she met his eyes once more and nodded her head. "I'm fine," she said tonelessly

"Thank you for the concern." God, he hated this forced politeness, just as he hated the fact that the scant arm's length that separated them now might as well be a mile. Claire gave him that perfected expression of placidity that had once belonged to Wilhelm Roth–the shuttered, pleasant mask from the photographs Reichen had seen of her. Now she was turning that look on him. Shutting him out with the same kind of cordial distance she'd once reserved for strangers and other inpiduals she didn't quite trust. The realization cut deep, despite the fact that he'd earned her cold shoulder. Hell, he'd earned much more than that where Claire was concerned.

He'd upended her whole world, put her in the crosshairs of a deadly personal war. Worse by far was the fact that he'd come back into her life only to drag her into the center of his conflict with Roth. "Claire," he said softly, words intended for her ears alone. "There is so much I want to apologize to you for–" "Please, don't." She glanced up at him in the darkness, gave him a faint shake of her head. There was no condemnation in her voice, no raw hurt. Only quiet resignation. "Do you really think I'm looking for you to tell me you're sorry? I'm not, Andreas, not anymore. Especially not right now. When this is all over tonight, then you can say whatever you need to say to me." She worried that he was walking into his death, and maybe he was. He blew out a slow breath, amazed as always by the strength that she carried inside her. He caressed her for only the briefest second, memorizing the velvet texture of her warm, honeyed skin. "I've always loved you, Claire. You know that, don't you?" She pressed her fingers tenderly against his lips.

"Don't you dare pretend this is good-bye," she whispered fiercely. "Damn you, Andre, don't you dare." Reichen kissed the soft pads of her fingertips, then hooked his arm around the small of her spine and brought her up against him. Hunger seared him, blood and desire inflamed together, twin needs that centered on the woman who felt so right in his embrace. "You're mine, Claire," he growled into her mouth as he kissed her, long and deep. All around them, the warriors were preparing to fan out and begin their search of the outlying forest. Reichen took a step away from Claire, feeling the gap of space like a sudden gust of chill air. "I have to go now." "I know," she said softly. "But you'll come back to me, right? This time, promise me, Andre … you will come back to me." He cast a quick glance into the dark woods, his senses prickling with the knowledge of a hard battle soon to come. He looked back to Claire and drank in the sight of her. His beautiful, extraordinary Claire. After tonight, she would be free of Roth for good.

Reichen would make certain of that. After tonight, Claire would be safe, no matter what he had to do to ensure it. "I have to go," he said again. Her gaze was imploring, a blade twisting below his sternum. "Andre…promise me?" "Stay safe, Claire. I love you." He fell in beside Tegan and the other warriors and didn't look back.

Claire stood there for a long moment, watching numbly as the forest swallowed up Andreas and the other warriors. She'd kept up her brave front longer than she thought she could, but now that he was gone, her spine felt less solid, her legs a bit unsteady beneath her.

She started when a hand touched down lightly on her shoulder. "Hey." It was Dylan, her expression soft, sympathetic. "Come on back to the Rover, Claire. It's warmer inside. Rio and I will keep you company until this is over." She let herself be led around to the waiting vehicle, realizing belatedly that Renata had joined the warriors as well. Inside the Range Rover, Rio was on two-way tactical communication with each member of the mission, including Andreas. The connection to him, even electronically, gave her a small degree of comfort. At least she could hear his voice from time to time, and know that he was still with her. Still alive. She refused to consider the many terrible ways this night could end. Instead she clung to the remembered warmth of Andreas's embrace, his passionate kiss, his loving words.

He had to come back to her. He had to survive. As she held those thoughts close to her like a shield, Tegan's deep voice came over the receiver mounted to the Rover's dashboard. "Fuck, I think we've got something out here." There was a rustle of movement in the background, the sound of boots traipsing carefully over dried leaves. The warrior dropped his voice to a low whisper. "Oh, hell yeah … we got something, all right.

Dilapidated barn roughly four hundred and fifty yards northeast of the Rover." "Copy" came Brock's bass growl. "Moving in now." Claire exchanged an anxious look with Dylan as more warriors reported that they were circling over to the location Tegan had given. "Couple of Minions posted outside of it armed with semiautos," Tegan added. "Reichen and I are moving in on them. Everyone else bring up the rear." Not a few seconds later, gunfire exploded from out of the distant woods.