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Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Twelve)

Claire lay on the huge bed, wide awake, staring into the shuttered darkness of the room. She hadn't moved since Andreas took himself to the floor. Time dragged, and for quite a while she was certain he'd been just as awake and alert as she was–and just as determined to lie there in silence and pretend he didn't notice. But somewhere around an hour ago, his breathing had changed from the controlled inhaling and exhaling she could barely discern, to the deep, rhythmic soughing of sleep. Claire listened to the slow sounds of his slumber, while Danika's words about the rarity of second chances and not wasting precious time on regrets were playing over and over in her mind like a song she couldn't get out of her head. There was so much she wanted to say to Andreas. Things she needed him to hear. Not that he would listen. He didn't seem inclined to let her get close enough to reach him at all. And she needed to be close to him now, if only to feel his strength beside her when everything she thought she knew about her world was crumbling at her feet.

She'd felt a wall come up between them tonight. It seemed to grow taller and less scalable the longer they were at the farmhouse Darkhaven. Claire wasn't sure what she'd done to upset him, or maybe it was simply the fact that he'd been forced to look after her now that Wilhelm was likely gunning for them both. For a moment she wished she'd been gifted with Danika's talent so that Andreas's mind, and his cryptic emotions, wouldn't be such a mystery to her right now. Her own ability could help her there, too. Everyone was more accessible in the dream realm. Not everything said or seen was truth, of course, but the surreal nature of dreams had a way of peeling back inhibitions. Claire ventured a look over the expanse of the wide bed to the large bulk of Andreas's body where he slept on the floor. She tucked her arm under her head and curled up on her side, watching him. Wondering where his dreams had taken him. She closed her eyes and thought about him as she let her body relax, willing her mind to calm and prepare for sleep. She let her talent stretch, tendrils of awareness reaching… searching. It usually took incredible focus to find the dreamer, but with Andreas, she'd no sooner slipped under the veil of consciousness and slumber than there he was.

It had always been like that with him, as if their connection had been there from the instant they first met and had never weakened. There had been times, long after Andreas was gone from her life, that Claire had been tempted to seek him out, if only in the dream realm. But she'd been too afraid of facing more of his rejection, and too ashamed of herself that, try as she might, she could not find for Wilhelm anything close to the love she had been unable to purge for Andreas. After all that had happened the past couple of nights, what she felt now for Wilhelm and the blood bond that shackled her to him was a cold and biting mistrust. Contempt, if everything she was learning about him was true. After all she'd been through with Andreas in these harrowing, intense long hours together, she had to admit to some measure of fear for the lethal inpidual he was now. But along with that fear had come a rush of emotion that terrified her even more for how strongly she still felt for him. For how deeply she still wanted him, needed him. How easily she could see herself falling back in love with him … if she'd ever truly stopped. As she walked into his dream now, her breath caught to find him under the starlight of a clear evening, seated shirtless and barefoot in the crisp, cool grass of the parkland sanctuary she had designed for his vacant Darkhaven property. All the details were just as she had them on the architect's model, down to the very last bench and flower bed. Good lord. He had memorized the entire plan. "It's beautiful," he said, his deep voice a vibration she felt all the way into her bones. "You knew exactly what needed to be here. Somehow, you knew." He didn't turn to face her as she cautiously approached him at the edge of his dream, where the land he was imagining in his sleep hugged the glittering lake beyond.

Andreas's golden skin was luminescent in the moonlight, made all the more striking by the flourish of twisting, twining glyphs that rode his muscular back like the masterwork of an artist's paintbrush. Claire remembered tracing those beautiful marks with her tongue; if she closed her eyes, she could still picture every unique arc and flourish that tracked over his smooth, firm skin. "You know you shouldn't be here," he said once her feet stopped moving and she was standing beside him. Now he did look at her, and his expression wasn't what she considered friendly. His irises were throwing off piercing amber light. When he curled his lip back to speak, the tips of his fangs gleamed stark white and razor sharp. "You don't belong here, Claire. Not with me. Not like this. You shouldn't have come in here when you weren't invited." "I had to find you." "What for?" "I needed to see you. I wanted… to talk…" "Talk." He spat the word on a huffed exhalation. Before Claire knew what he was doing, he was up on his feet, towering over her. His eyes were blazing, so hot it was a wonder her T-shirt and panties didn't melt away as his intense gaze roamed over her from the top of her head to her bare toes. "What do you want to talk about, Frau Roth?" "Don't do that," she said, wincing at his biting tone. "Don't use him to drive a wedge between us." "He is the wedge between us, Claire. We both put him there, didn't we? If you're only regretting it now, that's not my problem." She frowned at him, not wanting to feel the scrape of his words when she came there out of affection for him, as his friend. "Why are you doing this, Andre?" "What am I doing?" "Pushing me away.

Treating me like Wilhelm and I are one and the same, both of us your enemies." "What would you have me do instead? Tell you that everything will work out between us in the end? Pretend that Roth doesn't exist so that you and I can pick up where we left off all those years ago?" Claire glanced down, feeling foolish for having wanted him to say those very things–and more. Words he might never offer her again, even in the flimsy haven of a dream. He lifted her chin on the tips of his strong fingers. "We can't change anything that's happened, Claire. I won't stand here and give you lies to make either one of us feel better. And I'm not going to give you promises that I know I can't keep." "No," she said. "You'd rather run away." His mouth flattened and he shook his head, his eyes glittering darkly. "You think I wanted to leave you."

Not a question, but a quiet accusation. "Would it matter if I did?" she tossed back at him. She scoffed, still stinging from the wound he'd inflicted on her thirty years ago. "Never mind, don't answer that. I wouldn't want to press you into saying something only to make me feel better." Realizing she'd made a mistake in coming there, she pivoted, about to walk off and leave him to sulk alone in his dream. But before she could take a single step away, his fingers wrapped around her arm and he held her in place. He moved in front of her, his face taut and deadly serious. "Leaving you was the last thing I ever wanted to do." He scowled, his grip holding her tighter, moving her farther into the heated wall of his body. "It was the hardest goddamn thing I've ever done. Ever, Claire." She stared up at him speechless, lost in the dark glimmer of his eyes. In the next moment, he bent his head down and kissed her, their mouths fusing together in a long, breathless joining. She never wanted to stop. She didn't think she could let go of him now that he was in her arms again, even if only in her dreams. "God, I want you, Claire," he moaned against her mouth, the sharp prick of his fangs grazing her lips. "I want to be with you now…

Ah, Christ, I have needed to be with you for so long." Because it was a dream, wishes often need only be whispered to make them so. In an instant, Claire found herself pressed down on the soft, cool grass, Andreas's magnificent body poised above her. They were naked now, clothing having fallen away as if it were made of mist. But even in dreams, Andreas's skin was warm and firm to the touch. His broad shoulders and thick arms, his muscular chest and ridged abdomen … all of him was real and strong and perfect in its masculinity. Claire couldn't keep her eyes from traveling the length of him. She remembered all too vividly that Andreas's perfection extended farther down, as well. Because it was a dream, she cast aside the knowledge of all the reasons they should not be together. She knew only the calling of her heart, and as her palm came to rest on the center of his chest, she knew the calling of his heart, too. His pulse hammered against her fingers. His breath was coming fast, heavy, hot with need. Claire looked up into eyes that burned as bright as any flame, his face a tight, tormented mask. "Yes," she hissed, almost incapable of words. She sucked in her breath as the broad head of his cock nudged her, cleaved her. With a slow push of his hips he was sliding inside her, burying himself in a long, gloriously deep thrust. Claire cried out, arching up to take all of him within her, needing him to fill her. He stretched her tight, his length touching her very core.

"Oh, yes," she panted as they found a familiar rhythm, fitting together as though they'd never been apart. He was a ferocious lover; she knew that about him already and reveled in his animalistic intensity. Every hard stroke made her shatter just a little, every low moan and growl sent a shiver coursing through her veins. He knew just how to move with her, just the right tempo to wring every ounce of pleasure from her body. Claire felt the first tremors of release streak through her like tiny bolts of lightning in her blood. She couldn't contain it, had no strength to resist Andreas's mastery of her senses. She could only dig her fingers into the thick muscle of his shoulders and hold on as he steered her toward a splintering climax. She didn't know if he followed her there. All she knew was the incredible wave of pleasure that rushed over her… then the sudden hollow grief of realizing Andreas was gone. Claire called out to him in the dream, but he was nowhere to be seen. And now the garden sanctuary where they'd lain together was gone, as well. She was sitting in the middle of a sun-baked field, daylight blinding her eyes. "Andre?" She got up and started walking, holding her arm up to her brow like a visor as she struggled to get her bearings. She didn't know this place. She couldn't make sense of the golden light, or the pungent stink of smoke and something worse, something unidentifiable that filled her nostrils and choked her throat.

Coughing, Claire stepped over the scorched vegetation. She stumbled, her foot catching on a charred black lump that lay on the ground. Horror washed over her even before her senses processed what she was seeing. It was a child. A dead child, burned beyond recognition. "Oh, my God." Claire backed away, repulsed. Stricken. "Andreas!" She swiveled her head and cried out with relief to see the broad green lawn and the stone-and-timber mansion that had been Andreas's Darkhaven estate seated at the top of a gently sloping incline. Claire ran toward the house. She was naked and cold, terrified and confused by what she'd just seen outside. "Andre?" she called frantically as she walked along the back of the mansion, seeing no light or movement inside. "Andreas … are you in there?" She went around to the front, her arms wrapped around her nudity as she climbed the steps to the elegant entry. She knocked on the door. It eased open on silent hinges, but no one waited for her inside. Claire stepped over the threshold and into a strange mausoleum of white. Everywhere she looked–the floors, the walls, the furnishings–all of it was pristine, snowy white. And quiet as a tomb. "Andreas, please. I'm frightened. Where are–" He emerged from one of the rooms off the ghostly foyer. He was naked like she was, his eyes still burning amber, his fangs still filling his mouth. He stalked forward without a word and hauled her into a bruising, unyielding grasp.

Kissed her with so much heat and desire, her knees almost buckled beneath her. Then, just as she was beginning to feel safe again, he drew back from her. He let go so forcefully, thrusting her out of his reach, that she stumbled a bit before catching herself. Something wet and slippery was under her feet. She slid in it… an instant before the coppery tang of spilled blood registered in her nose. "Oh, my God." Claire looked down at the floor, which was no longer white but veined marble. Marble that was bloodstained and awful with gore. The walls and furnishings were no longer pristine and colorless either. Now everything was ruined, bullet-riddled, bloodied. Furniture and wall art toppled, broken, all of it in shambles. "Oh, no… Oh, God… no." She didn't know what to make of the burnt field or the tragic child outside, but there could be no mistaking what she was seeing here. Claire looked at him in abject horror and heartsick misery, realizing that he was showing her the destruction of his home. Destruction called for by Wilhelm Roth, just as he'd told her that first night at the country house. She put her hand out to Andreas in support, but he didn't take it. His expression was hard, condemning. When she glanced down, she saw why. Blood coated her fingers and palms. She was splattered with it all over her front, even her hair was sticky with it. And there, at her feet, was the lifeless body of a little boy– one of Reichen's nephews' sons, murdered by gunfire. Still more bodies lay elsewhere in the mansion, on the first floor, halfway up the staircase, near the door to the cellar down the hall. She was standing in the center of a massacre she wouldn't have been able to imagine in the worst of her nightmares. When she looked to Andreas again, he was engulfed in white-hot, deadly heat. Flames leapt off his body to ignite the walls and furniture.

In mere seconds, all Claire could see was fire. The scream ripped out of her throat, raw and despairing. She jolted herself out of the dream, unable to bear another moment of the ugliness of it. Sickened and trembling, she sat up in the bed and threw aside the quilt and sheets. No blood on her now. No cinders. Just the cold sweat of true terror and the anguish of having witnessed Andreas's horrific nightmare for herself. Claire expected him to wake up and offer her some kind of explanation or comfort. He had to know how shaken up she was now. But he kept on sleeping, lying still and breathing unruffled on the floor next to the bed. He let her weather her deep distress alone, as if he'd wanted her to be disturbed–horrified–by what he'd shown her. Perhaps he'd wanted her to be horrified by him in some way as well. Claire waited until her pulse leveled out and her body stopped trembling, then she inched down under the covers and counted the hours until dusk.

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