Authors: Nina Croft
Tags: #Fiction, #Paranormal, #The Order, #Romance, #General, #demons, #Detective, #private investigator, #demon hunter, #paranormal romance, #Nina Croft, #Vampires, #dark paranormal, #secret powers, #romance series
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Nina Croft. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
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Entangled Publishing is a subsidiary of Savvy Media Services, LLC.
Edited by Marie Loggia-Kee and Liz Pelletier
Cover design by Liz Pelletier
eBook ISBN 978-1-62266-959-2
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition February 2013
To my sister, Anne, who introduced me to vampires.
Breaking all the Rules
Rule Number One: Never question the past.
Tara took a single step into the alleyway and stopped.
Up ahead, something shifted in the shadows and a waft of warm air carried the stench of dirty smoke and rotten eggs to her nostrils. A prickle of unease shivered across her skin.
No way was she ending up dead in a dark alley before she had a chance to break Rule Number One. Wrinkling her nose against the smell, she held her breath and backed out into the bright lights of the main street.
And straight into something solid and unexpected.
For a second, she thought she must have hit a brick wall. A brick wall that hadn’t been there thirty seconds earlier.
“Are you okay?”
A brick wall that talked.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she turned.
Her eyes were level with his chest and at first all she registered was his immense size. Taking a slow step back, she forced her gaze upward. In the artificial light, he was leached of color, with black hair pulled into a ponytail, and skin so pale it appeared white. She went still as silver eyes captured hers. For a second, she stared mesmerized, unable to drag her gaze away from the stranger.
“Are you lost?” He spoke again, breaking the spell.
“No. Yes. Maybe.” She waved the map clutched in her hand. “I was considering a short cut.”
A short cut to the railway station and a fast train away from here. For the last ten minutes, she’d been dithering. Should she go ahead, break Rule Number One, and perhaps come to a messy and premature end? Or should she run away and try to forget the stupid rules had ever existed?
“A short cut down a dark alley? Has no one ever told you it’s dangerous to wander down dark alleys alone?”
Was there some subtle threat beneath his words? Did he look vaguely menacing for a moment? Or was it merely her overactive imagination playing games with her? He was just a man—a tall, powerfully built man, but quite respectable in his sleek, dark business suit and red tie.
Still, a little voice in her head whispered to her to turn and walk away—though perhaps not down the dark alley.
But something held her back.
All her life she’d been afraid. Aunt Kathy had brought her up to fear just about everything, and she’d done a brilliant job. But Aunt Kathy was dead, and Tara refused to live like that anymore.
“Well?” he murmured and she realized he was waiting for an answer.
“Actually, yes. I’m quite aware of the dangers. But I have an important meeting and my mind was on other things.”
Like running away.
He considered her for a moment. “Where is this important meeting? Perhaps I can help.”
“CR International. You know it?”
His lips curved into a slow smile and suddenly she realized how devastatingly attractive he was. “You mean the CR International building behind you?” A faint trace of amusement tinged his voice.
She pursed her lips but turned slowly. He wasn’t kidding. It stood directly opposite, on the other side of the street. An immense structure of steel and smoky glass with CR International in big gold letters over the door. How the hell had she missed that? “Oh…thank you.”
This was it. Either she’d discover the truth, or she’d be blasted by a bolt of divine retribution. Time to find out which.
She took a few steps but couldn’t resist glancing back over her shoulder. The man still stood, hands in his pockets, watching her, a strange almost hungry look in his eyes.
“Overactive imagination,” she muttered and headed across the street.
A young man sat behind the reception desk; handsome, with dark red hair like a fox and blue eyes that perfectly matched his shirt.
“I’m Tara Collins,” she said. “I have an appointment with Mr. Grant.”
“I’ll let him know you’re here.” He reached for the phone beside him, but it rang before he picked up, and he sent her an apologetic glance. “One moment.” As he listened, a startled expression flickered across his face. “Sure, Christian. No problem.”
He put the phone down. “Ms. Collins?”
“I’m afraid Mr. Grant can’t see you tonight.”
Tara sagged with relief and bit back a “halleluiah.” She’d done her best, but now she could legitimately put off breaking Rule Number One just a little while longer. Like forever maybe.
“Absolutely no problem,” she said. “Shall I make another appointment? Perhaps in a couple of weeks? A month? A year…?”
A year sounded good.
He smiled, showing perfect white teeth. “No need. That was Mr. Roth—the owner of the company—he’ll see you instead. I’ll take you up myself as access to the thirteenth floor is restricted.”
He called one of the security guards over from beside the door and spoke with him quietly then came out from behind the reception desk.
“My name’s Graham. If you’d come with me…”
She followed him, not to the bank of elevators where a few people waited, but into a smaller one around the corner. Inside, there were just two buttons, one pointing up and one down. Graham pressed the up button, and they rose smoothly. When the doors opened, he didn’t exit. Instead, he pointed to a set of black double doors opposite.
Tara stared at them, unable to shake the feeling that this was the point of no return. What if Aunt Kathy had been right? What if there was a very good reason not to question the past?
“Go ahead,” Graham murmured from beside her. “Mr. Roth doesn’t… bite.”
Tara scowled at the faint thread of amusement in his voice—it seemed as though everyone was finding her funny today. She stalked out of the elevator.
This floor appeared deserted, and hushed. Her feet made no sound on the thick carpets as she walked toward the imposing doors. Without giving herself any more time to think, she pressed her finger lightly to the smooth black metal and the door swung open. Inside, the room was in semi-darkness, the only light spilling in from the floor to ceiling windows that lined the far wall.
Perhaps no one was home.
She hovered in the doorway, unsure whether to stay or go, when a man spoke from inside.
“Come in, Ms. Collins.”
The voice was low, husky, and vaguely familiar. She hesitated a moment more and then took the few steps inside. Behind her, the door swung shut. The air was cool against her skin and she glanced around.
“Lights,” she muttered. “Lights would be good here.”
A faint click, and warm light filled the room. Tara blinked a couple of times then her gaze locked on the figure seated behind the huge steel desk.
The man from the alley. Why wasn’t she more surprised?
“You know,” she said. “You could have introduced yourself.”
A small smile curved his lips. “And spoil the surprise?”
He stood slowly, then came around the desk to stand in front of her, one arm outstretched. Tara fought the urge to hide her hands behind her back; something about this man set her on edge. Of course, it could be that the whole “breaking the rules” thing was just screwing with her mind, that right now, she was predisposed to see weirdness in everything.
She grasped his hand firmly, intending the greeting to be brief, but his fingers tightened around hers. Her gaze shot to his face. He wasn’t a handsome man; his features were too harsh for that, with pale skin stretched tight over hard bones. But his silver eyes held her mesmerized as he lifted her hand. For a moment, she was sure he intended to kiss it, but he merely inhaled deeply. Something flashed in his eyes, something hot and hungry, and a shiver ran through her. Then the expression vanished as if it had never been.
“I’m Christian Roth.”
“So your receptionist told me.” She gave a tug. “Could I have my hand back?”
He smiled and released her, then gestured to a chair in front of his desk.
“Why don’t you sit down and tell me how I can…help you.” He waited until she was seated, then returned to his own chair. “So, Tara Collins, why do you need a private investigator?”
This was the moment she’d built herself up for over the last six months. She’d even practiced the words in front of the mirror. But now, at the last second, they didn’t want to come out. She cleared her throat. Took a deep breath. She could do this.
“I want you to find out who I am.”
There, she’d done it. Broken Rule Number One.
She sat very still, staring at her hands. Her aunt had always been a little vague about the actual consequences of breaking the rules—just that they’d be dire. Tara had always imagined some sort of fiery bolt from above. Now she waited for it to crash down and annihilate her.
“So, you’re not Tara Collins?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. I’ve always been called Tara Collins. But I don’t know who she is or who my parents were or where I came from.”
“Perhaps you’d better explain a little more.”
She wished she could. Really she did. But she had no explanations; nothing she’d discovered since her aunt’s death made any sense. “Maybe I should start at the beginning.”
“A good place to start.”
Was he mocking her? But his expression was bland and she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. “I was brought up by my Aunt Kathryn. At least I always thought she was my aunt. We lived in a house on the Yorkshire moors. Aunt Kathy was a little…eccentric.” And that was the understatement of the century. “She never left the house and she would have preferred it if I never left, though sometimes I would…”
Sometimes she would sneak out and hide on the moors, high above the nearby village, and watch the people go about their normal lives, and dream of being part of that. But that sounded pathetic and for some reason she didn’t want Christian Roth to think her pathetic. “Sometimes I would go out, but mostly I’d stay. It was an odd life, but I didn’t know any different, and I was happy, at least when I was younger. Then six months ago my aunt died.”
The familiar sense of loss washed over her. Her aunt’s death hadn’t been sudden—she’d been ill for a long time—but it had been the end of everything Tara had known.
Her hands gripped the edge of the desk in front of her. “And I found everything she had told me was lies.”
“I don’t think she was even my aunt. I don’t know who she was, or why she brought me up. After she died, I found papers, but there was nothing about her. It was like she never existed.” She glanced at his impassive face. “My whole world was a lie. Everything I was brought up to believe in.” All those stupid rules she had followed for the last twenty-two years.
“So what is it you’d like me to do?”
She frowned. Hadn’t she been clear? “I told you, I want you to find out who I am. Who my aunt was and why she was looking after me.” When he remained silent, she continued, “I have money to pay you. The house was in my name and I have all sorts of investments. I’ve got copies of the paperwork here. I thought it might help.”
She took out the folder containing the meager amount of paperwork she’d been able to find about herself and her aunt and placed it on the desk in front of him. She watched as he flicked through the file, his eyes widening. Hers had almost popped out of her head when she’d seen how much money her aunt had stashed away, all in Tara’s name.
Christian closed the file and sat back. “Why do you want to know?”
It was a good question, and one she’d asked herself many times. She had a life now. She had friends, was going to college, getting real qualifications. She had a chance of that normal life she’d always dreamed of. But while she’d love nothing more than to forget the past, she couldn’t. All the time, in the back of her mind, the questions niggled.
Why had her aunt lied? What was she hiding? What was so bad that Aunt Kathy had concealed them away in that big old house on the moors? And what was it with all the stupid rules? The list of questions was endless and she needed answers.
“My life has been pretty odd until now and I just want to be normal. But what if I’m not?”
“So really, you want me to find proof that you’re normal?”