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Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Seven)

Andreas hadn't come out of the library all day. Claire sat in the foyer outside the closed doors, having quietly taken up her post on a small upholstered bench a few minutes after he'd driven her from the room with his bellowed demand that she go. Her back ached from the uncomfortable seating and she was exhausted, having not dared to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. She didn't know what he was doing in there. She didn't even know if he was all right. There had been no answer when she knocked on the doors a couple of hours ago to check on him. Now she sat on the little bench with her feet drawn up on the cushion and her arms locked around her knees, staring at the silent room as if a wild, rabid animal waited inside. It was nearly sundown. It wouldn't be long before the Enforcement Agency detail that Wilhelm was going to arrange for showed up to remove Andreas. Claire knew she'd done the right thing in going to Wilhelm for help. She'd done the only thing she could, not only for her own imminent safety and that of her mate, but also for Andreas. The stark fear she'd felt for him last night had since muted into a wary kind of sympathy. He was so broken now. So raw with fury. She only hoped he would have the sense to go quietly with the Enforcement Agents when they arrived. If he put up a struggle… well, she couldn't even let her mind go there. The latch on the library doors gave a soft click. Claire looked up, let her legs unfold and her feet settle on the foyer floor as Andreas came out of the room. He seemed much improved physically and even though he sent a dark glower in her direction, he appeared calmer, more rested than when she'd left him in there.

Maybe there was hope that he could be reasoned with after all. "You're still here," he remarked, plainly displeased. "I'd have thought you'd be hours away by now." "No," Claire murmured. Andreas scoffed. "Roth must know of a number of Agency safe houses in the area where he could have sent you. I'm surprised you didn't bolt for one of them the first chance you got." Claire didn't tell him that Wilhelm had ordered her to stay at the country house. It had bothered her then, but now, being forced to hold Andreas's piercing gaze, she felt more than an inkling of shame to think that her mate would willingly keep her in harm's way. Of course, she had never presented herself as a hapless, helpless female, and Wilhelm wouldn't have expected her to remain in Andreas's company unless he trusted she could handle the situation. That rationalization felt a bit hollow when she recalled the caustic way he'd told her to do whatever she must to detain Andreas for the long hours until the agents were able to get there. You know him better than most. I'm sure you'll think of something. "It must be near dusk." Andreas's deep voice ran up her skin like a charge. "How long do you suppose it will take Roth to get here?" Claire blinked, then shook her head.

"I don't know what you mean." His answering smile was cold, unconvinced. "Are you really going to sit there and pretend that you didn't seek him out for help and to warn him about me?" When she would have attempted to deny it, his mouth went a little tighter. "Just so you know, Claire, I hope you did go to him. I hope you told him to come as fast as he could, because I'm damned well ready to end this." Her blood chilled. "Are you really so eager to die, Andre?" He scoffed. "I'm not the one you need to worry about." Amber sparks lit up his irises, and she could see the points of his sharp white fangs as he spoke, potent reminders that although his anger seemed to have banked, it wouldn't take much for it to ignite again. It might be safer to try to lie to him, but she felt she owed him some honesty regardless of the risks. "All right. I did go to Wilhelm. I dreamwalked to him while you were in the cellar, just as you guessed. But your misguided need for vengeance will have to wait because he's not coming." "You told him I was here?"

"Yes." Claire stood up as Andreas took a step closer to her on the bench. "He's my mate. I had to warn him." "You told him about the fires? About his Darkhaven in Hamburg?" At her nod, his eyes narrowed on her. He inched nearer, crowding her between his big body and the upholstered bench pressed tightly against the back of her legs. "Does he know that you are left alone with me, at my mercy?" Claire swallowed. "He knows all of that." And still he's not coming. Although Andreas didn't speak the words, they were written clearly enough on his face. Claire glanced away from him because it was suddenly too hard to hold his knowing stare. To her utter shock, she felt his fingers light gently beneath her chin. When she followed that guiding touch, lifting her eyes back up to him, there was nothing the least bit gentle in his expression. "Does he have any idea how dangerous it is for you to be alone with me like this, Claire?" He searched her face, his warm breath skating across her brow. He stood so close to her, she could feel his heartbeat pounding, the strong, steady drum of it doing something crazy to her own pulse, as well. An unbidden yearning kicked up inside her, hot and twisting. It took all her strength of will not to turn her cheek into his palm and nuzzle against the warm curve of his fingers against her skin. This was wrong. This was insane. Oh, God… this was something she hadn't known for such a long time. Which only proved that Andreas was right. Being alone with him like this was very, very dangerous. "If you were mine," he murmured low under his breath, "I would walk through the fires of hell itself to keep you away from a man like me." Claire stared into his amber-flecked eyes, unsure what to say to him. Unsure what to think. All she knew was the feeling that was suddenly ablaze inside her–a kindling sense of longing and regret that shook her to her core. It was regret that won out. Scowling suddenly, Andreas broke her gaze. He glanced over his shoulder, head cocked slightly to the side, listening. Claire heard nothing, but then she didn't possess the preternaturally keen hearing of the Breed. Nor did she have to hear in order to understand what was going on outside the manor house. "Enforcement Agents," she whispered. "Wilhelm said he would arrange for a unit to come in at sundown to work everything out with you." Andreas backed off her with a dark chuckle. "A death squad." "No," she said. Dear God, she hoped not. "Nothing's going to happen to you. I won't let it.

Andre–" He wasn't listening to her now. In fluid motion, he loped to the stairwell and started climbing the steps two at a time. "Get out of the house, Claire. Do it now." Like hell she would. She hissed a curse and ran after him instead. He ducked into a second-floor bedroom at the front of the house, heading straight for the window. He tore off the UV-blocking shutters and peered through the mangled metal at the grounds below, swearing something nasty. Claire came up behind him just in time to see the black shapes of several armed agents scrambling in stealth formation toward the house. Andreas wheeled around, the tips of his fangs gleaming behind his upper lip. Accusation glinted hard in his eyes. "Do they look like they've come to negotiate with me?" Claire didn't have a chance to answer. Downstairs, there was a crash of breaking glass, followed by the heavy pound of boots hitting polished marble. The agents were pouring inside. "What will you do?" she asked him in a tight whisper, feeling the energy in the room begin to heat up already. It was Andreas generating the strange crackle in the air. His fury was growing, bringing with it the terrible power of his pyrokinesis. "Andre, listen to me … you can't continue like this. Please. I'm begging you–" His face was fierce, eyes blazing. "Wilhelm Roth is the one who should be begging me. Not you." The thunder of footsteps continued on the first floor as the agents split up to search the house.

Someone called for Claire, advising her to make her position known to the invading unit. "Go on," Andreas said. "Let them take you to safety outside." She knew she should. God help her, she knew with every scrap of logic in her mind that the smartest, most reasonable thing for her to do would be to let Wilhelm's men escort her out of the house while they tried to convince Andreas to give himself up peacefully. Her mind knew all of that. It was her heart that hesitated. "Goddamn it, Claire." Andreas stalked over to her and seized her arms in a bruising grasp. He gave her a brisk shake. "What the hell is wrong with you?" A shattering clap of sound exploded from behind her. Heat arrowed past her right ear, blowing strands of her loose hair into her face. She felt the sudden impact of the bullet as it missed her by a scant inch and slammed into the upper left side of Andreas's chest. "Nooo!" she screamed, horrified. He staggered back on his heels, but the shot didn't take him down. The mingled scents of gunpowder and blood filled Claire's head. They'd shot him. Oh, Christ…no. Blocking Andreas with her own body, she spun around to face the Enforcement Agent who stood in the open doorway of the bedroom. His huge black rifle was still aimed at Andreas, his finger hovering dangerously at the trigger. "Are you all right, Frau Roth?" For a long moment, she had no breath to speak. Her heart was jackhammering in her chest, her knees almost jelly beneath her.

The agent spoke to her, but his focus was centered wholly on Andreas, who loomed behind her, throwing off heat like a furnace. "It's okay," said the agent. "I've got him covered. He won't hurt you anymore." The agent stepped farther into the room, cautious progress that brought him to within arm's length of Claire. His weapon remained locked on target. As he neared, Andreas let loose with a feral-sounding growl. The heat that Claire felt coming off him before was getting stronger now, making the fine hairs at the back of her neck stand on end. "Please," she finally managed to croak. "You don't have any idea what you're doing. Put down your weapon." The agent's eyes darted to her for only a fraction of a second, as though to gauge her sanity–or lack thereof. "You need to step aside, Frau Roth. I have specific orders here. I mean to carry them out." Specific orders to kill Andreas on the spot. The realization sank into her consciousness like poison. They were a death squad, just as Andreas knew they would be. Wilhelm had called for his death.

Not only that, but he would have his men kill Andre in cold blood, right in front of her. The agent's voice was lethally cold now, and in the narrowing distance outside the bedroom, more agents were making a swift climb up the stairs. "Step aside, Frau Roth. I'm afraid I can't ask you again." The rifle came closer, a very convincing threat. She had no intention of cooperating with the agent, but in that next instant she sensed, rather than saw, Andreas's arm come up and around her to reach for the weapon with blinding speed. Heat traveled all along her side with the movement, sending out an electrical current that vibrated deep in her bones. Andreas locked his fist around the gun's barrel. His arm was glowing with heat that radiated down to his fingers in rings of pulsing white-hot light. The energy leapt from him and onto the rifle in bright undulations. Instantly, the agent's eyes went wide. His head lolled back on his shoulders and his body went into a violent spasm that made his teeth clatter. Claire smelled burning skin and hair. Sickened, she looked away as the Breed male dropped to the floor and convulsed from the sudden dose of lethal power. Before he was dead, another agent came racing into the room, his weapon at the ready. "Claire, stay back!"

Andreas roared at her. At that same instant, he threw off more heat and light, expelling it like a cannonball that materialized out of the palm of his hand. He threw the orb of fire at the newly arrived agent, killing him on the spot. Flames erupted all around. Fire crept up the far wall and onto the ceiling. Andreas shot a fierce look over his bleeding shoulder to where Claire stood behind him, awestruck by the terrible power he possessed. "Come on. We have to get out of here." She followed him out of the burning room and onto the second-floor landing. Two more agents were scrambling up the stairs to head them off. He stopped them halfway there, unleashing twin fireballs that exploded like bombs, tearing a hole in the silk- papered wall and taking a large bite out of the curving wooden staircase. As they navigated to the ground level, Claire stayed close to him–but not too close, mindful of the searing energy that rode every inch of his body. When she got so much as a foot away from Andreas, his heat was overwhelming. The incinerating glow that had covered him in the woods last night was back again. If she touched him now, even accidentally, she knew it would kill her. But as an inferno of his making surged hotter upstairs and in the foyer, and as Andreas dispatched the rest of the death squad that had come to kill him on what could only have been Wilhelm's explicit orders, Claire knew that this lethal being–this man she had possibly never fully understood–was her best chance of surviving the next few minutes. So she ran when he told her to run. She stuck as close as she dared. It wasn't until they both were out of the manor house, feet flying over the cool, moonlit autumn grass outside, that Claire allowed herself to drop to her knees and let the tears fall. She pivoted around, choking on the crisp night air and her own strangling confusion of emotions. Her house was ablaze. More lives were lost. She wanted to scream, but in the deepest corner of her heart, all she knew was a selfish, swamping relief that Andreas was still breathing. She swiveled her head to look at him. The large, bright shape of him wobbled through her welling tears. How many times in the past few months had she wished that he were still alive?

How many tears had she secretly shed for him and his perished kin? No matter what Andreas said, she could not allow herself to believe for one second that Wilhelm had had anything to do with the destruction of Andreas's Darkhaven. She hoped with every shred of her being that his accusations were wrong. But now, after what happened here tonight, she couldn't dislodge the sharp pebble of doubt that had embedded itself under her skin. And she knew she wouldn't be able to rest until she knew of Wilhelm's guilt or innocence for a fact. She needed answers. Now more than ever, she needed to understand just what kind of man Wilhelm Roth truly was. "Are you all right?" Andreas asked as she wiped her wet eyes and got to her feet. Claire nodded, but inside she felt numb, a growing sense of sickness roiling in the pit of her stomach. "He would have had you killed tonight," she murmured. "I didn't know, Andreas. I swear to you, I didn't know." He stared at her in silence, watching her through the pulsating glow of fire that still traveled his body. He was bleeding and wounded, monstrous with heat, all because of Wilhelm. And because of her. She regretted contacting Wilhelm now, regardless of any obligation she might have to him as his Breedmate.

She had practically signed Andreas's death warrant herself. "They will send more agents before long," she said. "When this unit doesn't report in to Wilhelm, he will only send in more to find you." "Yes," Andreas said, his tone flat and grimly accepting. "He will send in more men and I will kill them, too, until I take out so many that Roth has no choice but to face me himself. I welcome that moment. I don't care what it takes to get there." Claire shuddered internally at the thought of so much violence and death. She was desperate for answers of her own from Wilhelm, and she wasn't about to stand around and wait to witness more bloodshed and flames. She walked past Andreas and headed toward the road that led off the estate. "Claire," he called from behind her, but she kept walking, moving with a new kind of resolve. Andreas's deep voice reached out to her from the stretch of darkness in her wake. "Claire… where the hell do you think you're going?" She paused, turned a weary look on him. "You say you mean to locate Wilhelm and take your revenge on him. Now I need the truth from him. Most of his business is conducted from a private office in the city. Maybe if we go there, we'll both find the answers we need."

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