Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-Four)

I still say we're wasting precious time and opportunity if we don't at least consider a daytime reconnaissance." Nikolai's mate, Renata, hopped down off the counter in the weapons room and started pacing in her combat boots and black fatigues. Her chin- length black hair was loosened from the band that had held it back during her patrols and now swung freely around her face as she argued her point for the second time. "I mean, come on, you guys. If the he-man resistance being thrown around here right now is only about keeping us safe, it's a nonissue. The worst we can run into during daylight hours are Minions, and I dare any one of you to tell me I can't take out a human mind slave in my sleep.

With one hand tied behind my back." Niko grinned at his woman. "She's got a good point, Lucan. We're not talking about a combat situation, just sending them in to gather intel and report back so we can move in." Lucan grunted, looking up from beneath his dark brows. "I don't like it." "I don't like it, either," Rio put in. "But I know Dylan will be safe with Renata. If the women are open to doing this, then maybe we should let them help. You've said it yourself, Lucan: Right now we need all hands on deck." Reichen sat off to the side and listened in silence, biting back his own opinion, which was basically that whatever the Order decided was fine with him so long as they left Claire out of the picture entirely. Unfortunately for him and his opinions, Claire seemed to have other plans.

He felt her in the doorway of the room before he actually saw her, the pull of his bond to her turning his head in her direction as if the core of him were connected to her by a wire. She came in with Dante's mate, both of them moving to the back of the room as the debate continued between Lucan and Renata. "Think about it, Lucan. If we work the daylight, that gives us an eight-to ten-hour advantage," she said. "Eight to ten more hours closer to Roth could be a crucial advantage to actually getting close to Dragos. If the pullback we saw tonight in Boston is an indicator that they're scared and running, then we don't have any time to waste." Several heads nodded in agreement with Renata. "And if the pullback is an indicator of something else?" Lucan asked grimly. "If they've abruptly pulled out of Boston not because they're worried about being found, but because they're working on something bigger?" "Actually, I think we need to assume that it's not fear so much as strategy." Claire's voice drew everyone's attention to the back of the weapons room.

She glanced around at the group, lingering the longest on Reichen. Her gaze was troubled, and he could feel the distress that had her heart pounding uncomfortably in her breast. "I don't know Dragos, but I know Wilhelm Roth well enough. He never operates from a position of fear. He believes himself invincible, smarter than everyone else. Wherever he is, he's got an alternative plan to strike even harder than he has before." "All the better reason to use any advantage we can to find him," Rio added. Lucan's gaze traveled from Claire to Renata to Dylan, the trio of Breedmates who would be carrying out the daytime mission. "You're all in agreement, then? You want to do this?" "Yes," they answered in unison. He considered it for a long moment, then gave a solemn nod. "All right, then. Gideon will grid the best area for you to start searching.

Let's plan on meeting for one final review in the tech lab before you roll out." With a round of assenting comments, the meeting began to disperse. Reichen started to move toward Claire, but before he could reach her and offer the dozen different apologies he'd been rehearsing in his mind since they'd last parted, Renata and Dylan swept her along in a rush of conversation. She gave him only the briefest look as she passed, the message in her gaze unmistakably clear. He had nothing to say about what she was doing. He had refused to give her promises he couldn't keep, and now she was dealing it back to him in spades. The taste of his comeuppance was bitter as hell. Claire turned away from him, then continued on with her two female companions to discuss the daytime mission that had put a lump of icy dread in Reichen's gut.

By the time the sun rose, Claire's frustration with Andreas had long dried up. She understood his concern, and his anger. She had been foolish to think she could negotiate with Roth. Even more foolish to think that she could ever endure a return as his mate. She would have done it, though. She would have done anything to ensure Andreas's well-being. Especially after the vision she'd seen of his fiery demise. All she'd known was the need to hold on tightly to him. That was why she'd asked him to give up his quest to avenge his family and all but begged him to let the Order fight the battle with Roth and Dragos on the front lines.

It had been a moment of keen and selfish desperation, one that had made her blind to anything else but her love for him. All she had known was her need to keep him near so that nothing and no one could take him away from her again. But as Claire prepared to leave the compound with Dylan and Renata that morning, she had come to realize that she had been asking too much of him. In the compound's tech lab with the others, she watched from the periphery as the two females' mates, Rio and Nikolai, spent a last few quiet moments murmuring tender words to them and holding them close. Witnessing the soft good-byes and lingering embraces of the two couples parting for the day, Claire felt a sting of shame for what she'd expected of Andreas. Their love was no more sacred than what she was seeing here. The safety of either of them was no more important than that of any of the warriors or their Breedmates.

Andreas had been right to reject what she had asked of him. Claire might have told him as much, but he hadn't come to see her off with the rest of the Order. Instead it was Tess and Savannah who pulled her into quick, warm hugs as she and Dylan and Renata began gathering their gear for the day's mission. Lucan and Gabrielle came over a moment later, the Order's leader giving her a somber nod as his Breedmate briefly embraced Claire. "My thanks for your willingness in helping us try to track Roth," he said in his deep, commanding voice. "I don't expect it's easy for you. There is still time for you to change your mind, if you'd rather not–" "No," Claire interrupted. She gave a mild shake of her head. "I want to do this. After all I know about him now, I need to do this."

A grim nod was Lucan's only reply as Gideon summoned everyone's attention for a final run-through of the grid he'd mapped out for the females to follow. Claire listened to the instructions that would take them south of Boston and into Connecticut, beginning a sweep of the area near the New York State line, where she'd learned that Dragos had once been confronted by Dylan's mate, Rio, but managed to escape. From there, the recon mission would cover as much ground as possible during daylight hours, hoping that somewhere along the way, Claire's blood bond to Roth would pick up a solid trail that the Order could follow up on after dark.

"I'm giving you each a phone equipped with GPS," Gideon was saying now, walking away from the map he'd charted on the wall to retrieve three cell phones from the table. He handed them out to Claire, Dylan, and Renata. "Keep them turned on and secured on your person at all times. We're going to be monitoring your location and progress from here, but we want hourly check-ins, minimum. You get a beat on Roth, you phone in ASAP. Anything looks or feels off to any of you while you're on this mission, you phone in. If you have any reason to stop the vehicle, even for a two minute bathroom run, you phone in. Understood?"

The three of them nodded their agreement, although Renata did so while rolling her eyes at Claire and Dylan. Underneath her calf- length black trench coat, the ebony-haired Breedmate wore lug-soled boots, dark denim jeans, and a black turtleneck–passable enough as street clothes, if one didn't look too closely at the lumpiness that ringed her slender hips. A small arsenal of blades and pistols were sheathed and holstered on the leather belts that wrapped her waist. To this impressive collection of weaponry, Nikolai added one more: a nasty-looking, long-barreled gun roughly the length of Claire's arm. He handed it to Renata, then placed a clip of ammunition in her open palm. "Your special titanium hollowpoints?" she murmured, then beamed up at him as if he'd given her a bouquet of prize-winning roses. Niko grinned, twin dimples framing his broad smile. "Nothing says I love you like custom-made rounds." Renata kissed him and laughed, pocketing the clip and carefully slinging the gun's strap over her shoulder. "Unnecessary, but sweet. Thanks, babe."

"Those Rogue-smoking rounds aren't just for killing vampires," Lucan said. "They'll take down a Minion just as well. Don't hesitate to shoot if you feel the situation warrants it at any time." Renata nodded. "Trust me, no worries there." She sent a look at Claire and Dylan. "Ready to hit the road, girls? Let's rock and roll." Claire slipped the cell phone into the pocket of her loose jeans, then moved along with the other two women as they made their way to the automatic glass door of the tech lab. She couldn't keep her eyes from searching the corridor outside, looking for Andreas. But he wasn't there, and he wasn't coming either. She didn't know if she had driven him away or if she had already lost him before their fruitless confrontation a few hours earlier. Not that it mattered. He wasn't there. He wasn't hers, and possibly never would be. Claire supposed that now was as good a time as any to start getting used to that fact all over again.