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Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Seventeen)

Kade caught the scent of freshly spilled human blood only a couple hours into the night's patrol. "Down that alley" he said to Brock and Chase, who both nodded their agreement in silence. The three warriors headed off together, stealthy, weapons drawn and ready to fire, as they started down the lightless stretch of asphalt that separated two old brick buildings in the seedier part of town. The narrow strip of pavement was foul with the stench of human waste and rotting garbage. But none of that could disguise the coppery tang that emanated from the other side of a dilapidated Dumpster. Kade reached the dead human first. It was a young female this time, savaged just as brutally as the male he and Brock had found last night. Unfortunately for her, the vampire who'd butchered her throat had also had a taste for something else. Her short skirt was shredded down the front and gory with blood. Her bright pink painted fingernails were broken, her knees scraped, as if she had tried unsuccessfully to get away from her killer. "Jesus," Brock muttered under his breath.

"This girl is somebody's daughter. Maybe somebody's sister. What kind of fucking animal would do–" Chase's fist went up in a signal to cut the chatter. He pointed to the rooftops above their heads. Someone was up there. The crunch of a footstep traveled down to the alley on the quiet of the clear autumn night. Was it Hunter? This new corpse sure seemed to fit his apparent pastime. "I'm going up," Chase mouthed. "Not without backup," Kade replied, but the ex-agent was already in motion. He holstered his weapon and leapt up onto the Dumpster in silence before jumping from there to grab the bottom of a black fire escape on the building. With hardly a sound, he scaled the rickety iron steps, then vaulted up and onto the roof. Gunfire erupted the instant Chase disappeared from view. "Ah, shit," Brock hissed. "That crazy motherfucker. You take the stairwell inside; I'm going up the escape after him." They took off via separate routes to the roof, both of them arriving within seconds to find Chase lying in a pool of his own blood, bleeding from a ferocious chest wound. He was badly hit, but breathing. "Son of a bitch," Kade said as he raced to the fallen warrior's side. "Not… him," Chase groaned, grimacing with the effort. "Wasn't Hunter…"

"What do you mean, it's not Hunter?" Kade said. "Then who the hell–" Another hail of incoming rounds ripped through the darkness from a point unseen. Metal pinged. Aged brick shattered. Kade and Brock returned fire, shooting toward the source of the assault but seeing nothing solid to aim for. More bullets flew at them. Brock shouted in sudden pain. "Fuck! I'm hit." "Goddamn it," Kade snarled, glancing over in time to see that the big black warrior had taken a bullet to the upper biceps. It was an impairing wound, but nothing fatal. Chase, on the other hand… shit, the guy was in real bad shape. Fury over his wounded brethren roared through Kade's veins as he squeezed off a hellish volley of rounds. He caught a flash of movement–dark against the darkness–and saw their assailant leap to the rooftop of the adjacent building. "Fucker's on the move. I'm going after him." He left Brock to cover Chase and hauled ass after the huge vampire who was jumping from building to building like a cat. Not being Gen One, as his quarry obviously was, Kade didn't have that kind of speed, but he had determination. He kept up, navigating the assorted clutter of ventilation systems, access doors, loose pipes and tools, and other items that had somehow found their way up to the rooftops above Boston. Just as he was gaining ground on the son of a bitch, he got a glimpse of more trouble heading his way. On a distant rooftop, another Gen One dressed in black emerged. This one had an automatic weapon, too.

If both of the vampires came after him with guns blazing, he was more than screwed. But the second Gen One didn't open fire on him. He opened fire on Kade's fleeing quarry. There was an awful racket as both guns lit up the night. Kade stood on the nearest rooftop and watched in amazement as the fight across the way turned from firearms to hand to hand. The struggle was savage. Bones were cracked, flesh was torn, and sounds that were nothing close to human split the air as the battle intensified. Kade held his own weapon aimed and prepared to open fire, but amid the scuffle he couldn't be sure which of the vampires to take out. Finally one gained control over the other. He slammed his opponent's head down into the concrete of the roof, then grabbed what looked to be a length of pipe and raised it high over his head. The Gen One who held it let out a furious roar, then brought the pipe crashing down like hell's own hammer. A sharp, metallic clank sounded in the instant before a blinding flash of pure white light shot out against the darkness. Kade hit the deck. Instinct took him down on his belly and kept him there until the piercing ray went out a moment later.

When it was dark again, he sat up on his haunches. On the other rooftop, the victorious Gen One was also starting to get up. Despite most of his muscles and nearly all of his good sense telling him to keep his ass planted, Kade grabbed his weapon and leapt across the distance to confront him. He cautiously approached, finger poised to load the bastard with a lot of lead. As he moved closer, he got a look at the dead Gen One. His head was separated from his body, burns still sizzling in a perfect circle around his neck and those familiar dermaglyphs Kade had spotted on the vampire he'd run into last night. On the ground next to the smoking corpse lay a black, dented collar rigged with some kind of electronic device. A small LED was blinking red, then faded out. Kade peered down at the face of the dead vampire and cursed under his breath. Chase was right. It wasn't Hunter. It looked close enough to be blood related–brothers, even–but it wasn't the Gen One assassin who'd come on board with the Order a few weeks ago. No, Hunter stood and walked up beside Kade now. He cast a dispassionate eye on the grisly death he'd just dealt to someone obviously very close to him genetically. He moved forward, then bent to retrieve the strange collar from its nest of gore.

"The last time I saw Dragos, he said there were others like me," Hunter said flatly. "I've been tracking this one in the city for the past three nights. He is not alone. And more will be coming. Soon." Kade raked a hand over his scalp. "Well, aren't you just a lovely ray of sunshine." Hunter pivoted his head and stared at him without replying. "Come on," Kade said. "Let's go take care of the others and report back to the compound."

He didn't want their evening together to end. The stroll around Newport had been pleasant enough, if only for watching the way Claire lit up as she showed him all the places she recalled as a young woman, the places that still seemed to matter to her. This was her home, not Germany. She belonged here, with the salty breezes and the crisp New England autumn flushing her cheeks a deep, ruddy red. Reichen couldn't see her returning to Germany. He didn't know what was to transpire in the coming days or weeks, however long it took him to find Wilhelm Roth and remove him from existence. He didn't even know if he himself would be alive once all of the smoke cleared. But he knew this: The time he had with Claire, right now, this unlikely–and far too brief–reunion they were experiencing would prove to be the most precious hours of his life.

In truth, if he did not survive his confrontation with Roth, his death would be worth it, just to have known Claire again like this and to have the certainty that Roth could never do anything to harm her. "It's really too bad you can't share any of this chocolate with me," she said, biting into a piece as she sailed past him into the house. Closing the door behind them, he flicked on the lights for her and watched the fluid sway of her hips in the form-hugging black skirt. That view had been tempting him most of the night. "You sure I can't convince you to try even just a little taste?" He closed the space between them in about the time it took for her to blink. He kissed her, sweeping his tongue past her soft lips and into the delectable warmth of her mouth. The chocolate was bittersweet on her tongue, but nowhere near as tempting as the feel of her in his arms. "Delicious," he murmured against her mouth. "I think I might just have to eat you." She laughed and gave him a teasing push, but her eyes were bright with interest as she looked up at him.

"Let's go take a short walk along the shore." He shook his head. "I have a better idea." "Oh, yeah, I'll just bet you do." He smiled, gave her flushed cheek a gentle stroke. "Will you do something for me instead?" At her quizzical look, he took her hand and walked her over to the grand piano that was shrouded with a drape of fabric. "Play for me, Claire." "Oh, I don't know…" she hedged, frowning as he removed the large square of cloth and unveiled the gleaming black Steinway. "It's been so long since I've played anything. I'm sure I'll be terrible. Besides, it's probably been years since this piano has been tuned." "Please," he said, refusing to be deterred. They would be leaving Newport in a matter of a couple of hours–as soon as he broke the news to her and called the Order to send a car–and he didn't know if this might be one of their last times together. Selfish or not, he wanted to wring out every last moment of this special night together. "Play whatever you wish. I'm not interested in perfection. I just want to hear your music again. For me." "For you," she replied, giving him a slow smile as she pulled out the little bench and sat down. "All right, but don't blame me when your ears start to bleed." He chuckled.

"I have no concern whatsoever. Play, Claire." She lifted the lid that protected the keys, then sighed thoughtfully as she brought her hands up to hover over them. From the very first notes, she mesmerized him. He didn't know the piece she played, but it was beautiful–haunting and sad, powerful. There was a heart breaking in every note, lyrical movement so deep and emotional, he could only stand there and let the music wash over him … through him. As he watched her play the piece from memory, he felt the profundity of her own reaction to the music. She was living it as she played it, every stanza full of meaning. It was her own creation, he realized. The beautiful composition had come from Claire's own heart… her own soul. "You wrote that," he said softly as the final note trailed off. She looked up at him with shining eyes. "After you left, music was all I had for a while. I wrote several pieces, including this one. It just seemed to… I don't know… pour out of me in the first few weeks after you were gone." Reichen drifted closer to her, moved by the power of everything he was hearing and feeling when he was in this woman's presence. "It's incredible, Claire. You are incredible." He sat down beside her on the little bench. He gazed into her dark eyes, his fingers softly caressing the smooth perfection of her beautiful dusky brown skin. When he kissed her this time, it was not with searing hunger but with infinite care and reverence. He held her as if she were made of glass, worshipped her mouth as though it were the rarest delicacy. He loved her. If he had longed to deny it–even to himself–the truth was staring him full in the face now.

He loved this woman, even though she wasn't his. Even though he was not good enough for her, and never had been. If nothing else, Roth had been right about that all those years ago. "He knows about us," Claire blurted quietly as Reichen held her in his arms. "He knows we've been together–that I am with you now." It didn't shock him to hear it. Roth's blood bond with Claire would have betrayed her to him. But the little tremor of fear in her voice made Reichen's own blood seethe. "What happened? Did he do something to you?" "Last night, while we were making love, he let me know that he was aware of my infidelity to him. I don't know what he might have done, but his message of pain came through loud and clear to me." "You didn't tell me." Reichen drew her away from him and stared hard into her eyes. "Why did you keep that from me?" "Because there is nothing to be done about it, Andre." "Like hell there isn't," he gritted. "As soon as I know where that bastard is hiding, I will damned well do something about him." Claire winced, slowly shook her head. "I'm afraid of what he will do to you. He will kill you if he can. You have to know that. It's no stretch to assume that it was him who tried to kill you back in Hamburg all those years ago.

He was there at the Darkhaven after you and I argued. I was crying when I went inside. I told him what happened, how I wished more than anything that you wanted me for your mate. I told him everything, Andre. And the next thing I knew, you had disappeared. I didn't think about the fact that I went to him about you then, but now…" Reichen pulled her close and placed a kiss to the top of her head. "You didn't do anything wrong. I've felt all along that the assault on me was too personal and violent to be random. It might not even be centered entirely on us being together. But whether or not Roth had a hand in it doesn't matter, because the end result–the change that came over me in that field–is the thing that drove me away from you. It's the only thing that could have kept me away." She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his chest. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry for everything he's done to you. Your family your female friend in Berlin that he turned Minion… Oh, God, Andre. I'm so very sorry for all the pain you've endured."

Reichen hushed her, holding her close. "This is between Roth and me. None of the blame rests with you. What happened to me is insignificant. But my family deserves justice. So does Helene." Claire was silent for a long moment, then she asked gently, "Did you love her very much?" He thought about Helene and the strong bond of trust and understanding they'd shared. She was a remarkable woman who had been something more than just another of his long line of casual, noncommittal dalliances. It had nearly killed him to see her drained of her humanity, but no more than it had devastated him to have to be the one to finish her after Roth had left her an empty shell, her mind enslaved to carry out his evil bidding. "I cared for Helene deeply," he admitted. "I loved her as best as I was capable. But I wasn't able to give her my heart, because it was already lost to another." Claire drew out of his arms then and gazed up at him. "It's always been you, you know." He cupped her face in his palms. "I have been in love with you all along."

She closed her eyes for a long moment. When she opened them again, they were welling with tears. "Oh, Andreas. I still love you. I never stopped." With a growl he could not contain, Reichen captured her mouth in a possessive kiss. When they were both panting with desire, he pushed the piano bench back and stood her up in front of him. The keys let out a burst of discordant noise as Claire leaned against them. He threw her long skirt up over her thighs. "Ah, Jesus," he hissed through his huge fangs. "You're not wearing panties." She gave him a saucy smile. "Surprise." If he'd known that, they never would have made it out of the house in the first place.

Ravenous for the taste of her, he buried his head between her legs and plundered her sweetness. She held on to him, fingers twisting in his hair. He kissed her ruthlessly, needing to feel her come apart against his mouth. When she was writhing, moaning and sighing with the rush of a ferocious orgasm, he reached down to unzip his trousers and free his raging erection. He rose from the bench and wedged himself between her gorgeous thighs. All he wanted to do was drive his cock home, but she looked too enticing to rush, her sex flushed deep red and juicy, her dark curls like wet silk. He took himself in hand and played the head of his penis along the slick cleft of her body, delighting in her breathless mewls of pleasure. It was a torture that broke him before it did her. On the knife's edge of coming just from the feel of her, he shifted his hips and pushed inside. She was molten heat around him, her plush sheath swallowing him from tip to balls. He began to pump, slowly at first, still delusioned enough to think that he had any patience where loving Claire was concerned. Her body milked him, the hot, wet friction driving him toward a more urgent tempo. He couldn't stop. He couldn't hold it, not for another second. He gritted his teeth and let out a sharp roar as his seed exploded out of him and deep into her. She climaxed with him, her fingernails scoring his shoulders as she cried out with her own release.

He murmured her name over and over, his cock as hard as marble even as the last tremors of his orgasm racked him. He stared down at her, moved as always by her exquisite, delicate beauty. He loved the way they looked together, the contrast of their skin, the perfect fit of them when they were joined. And he loved her spicy warm blood scent, especially when it mixed with the musky perfume of her arousal. "I don't want to let go of this night," he murmured, gazing into the absorbing color of her eyes. "I don't want to let go of you." "Then don't let go." She wrapped her arms around him a bit tighter. "This time, I won't let you go." He smiled, regret and duty tearing at him from inside. He had intended to explain to her at least half a dozen times already this evening that their time in Newport was over. He had intended to explain it now, too, but instead he found himself lost in her eyes. Lost in the intoxicating pleasure of her body. "For now," he said, kissing her as he spoke, "let's neither one of us let go." "Yes," she said, moving her hips in a provocative way against him. She stared up at him then, her eyes intense and imploring. "Will you do something else for me tonight, Andre?" He grunted, bending his head to taste the soft skin below her ear.

"Anything." "Make love to me again, the way you would if we were truly mated." He came up to regard her with a frown. "Drink from me," she said, stroking his face with a lovingly tender touch. "Let me pretend that we're together as blood-bonded mates. Just for tonight." God, the very notion lit through his veins like a flash fire. He could feel his glyphs surging with hungered colors, and his fangs stretched even longer in his mouth. "I want you to do it," she said, a soft demand. "Drink from me as though I were really yours." The sound that left his lips was raw, profane. He reared back, fighting the need that shot through him.

But then Claire tilted her head to the side and moved her hair away from her neck, and he was lost. He bore down on her in a primal surge of motion, fangs seeking out her vein as he plunged deep into her welcoming heat once more. The taste of her sweet, warm blood slammed into his senses in a flood of roaring power. He couldn't curb his possessive growl as he suckled hard at her throat. Nor could he get close enough as he held Claire tight against him and buried himself to the hilt. He pumped hard and fast, unable to be gentle when her blood was spurring him like the most potent, intoxicating drug. He had never known this kind of primal, visceral union. It staggered him. It humbled him. It shamed him too, when he wanted more than anything to give himself to Claire in the same way, but could not because she was already bonded to another male. Reichen could offer her his vein, but no matter how much of him she drank, her bond would remain to Wilhelm Roth. A flicker of aggression and fury began to twist and kindle in Reichen's gut when he thought of any male having a claim on Claire.

That it was Roth only gave more fuel to the anger threatening to ignite inside him. No, he thought fiercely, denying the heat that was so eager to leap to life, just waiting for his summons. Reichen centered all of his focus on Claire, ignoring everything but the strong beat of her pulse against his tongue, and the gentle squeeze of her sex around his. He reveled in her soft cries as she came, memorizing every flush and quiver that traveled her body as he pleasured her time and again, loath to let the night–and their fleeting time together–come to its end.

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