Bittersweet Blood ONLY
A Novel of the Order by Nina Croft
Tara Collins just wants to be normal. Everyone else wants her dead.
Tara’s eccentric aunt raised her to be fearful of the world and follow the rules. But after her aunt’s death, Tara is ready to take control and experience life for the first time. But she quickly discovers that everything she’s been told is a web of lies. Determined to solve the mystery of who she is truly, she hires private investigator to help her uncover the truth.
Christian Roth is more than your average PI. A vampire and ex-demon hunter, Christian lives among the humans, trying to be “normal.” But recently, things seem to be falling apart. There’s a crazed demon hell-bent on revenge hunting him down and a fae assassin on the loose with an unknown target. Plus, the Order he abandoned desperately needs his help.
As the secrets of Tara’s past collide with the problems in Christian’s present, she finds herself fighting her attraction to the dark and mysterious investigator. Falling in love does not fit into her plans at all, but Tara soon learns that some rules are meant to be broken.
Title: Bittersweet Blood (The Order, #1)
Author: Nina Croft
Length: 300 pages
Release Date: February 2013
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-62266-959-2
* Sale pricing cannot be guaranteed
Praise for Nina Croft:
“The dialogue is fun, the action fierce, the love scenes sizzling…”
- Joy Lamb, USA TODAY Books HEA
“An exciting rollercoaster ride… Loads of fun!”
- Julia Rachel Barrett, award-winning author of CAPTURED
“Absolutely hysterical! Rico – you had me at ‘bring me my goddamn spaceship.’”
- Dawn McClure, author of SAMAEL AND HEAVEN SENT
© 2013 Nina Croft
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?”
She smiled; she’d come to the right place after all. “Yes.”
There was a light tap on the door. She glanced over her shoulder as Graham peered inside.
“What is it?”
“Piers Lamont is in reception.”
“Okay, Graham. We’ve finished here for the moment.”
Graham closed the door behind him and Christian rose to his feet. “Well, Ms. Collins—”
“Please, call me Tara.”
“And you must call me Christian. Well, Tara, I’ll read through the papers and see where we can go from there. Perhaps you can come back in a few days and answer any questions that come up.”
She stood. “Do you think you’ll find anything?”
“I’m sure I will, and don’t worry,” he added. “There will be an explanation.”
Tara searched his face, trying to decide if he was telling the truth. Or was he just trying to placate her, because really he thought she was crazy, and he wanted to get her out of there fast? But his face was bland, impossible to read. Suddenly she felt drained. She’d done it, broken the rules, and now she had to live with whatever they found.
“One question before you go. How did you choose me?”
For a moment, she considered lying—after all, she had just said she wanted to be normal. Then she shrugged. “I didn’t choose you. My cat did. He’s called Smokey and I’ve had him all my life.”
He scrutinized her as though wondering what to say next, or perhaps whether to say anything at all. “And just how did…Smokey, choose me.”
“Well, he didn’t pick you personally, just your company. He put his paw right on your advertisement.” Christian regarded her with a strange expression in his eyes, and she hurried on, “I don’t want you to think I’m crazy or anything, but Smokey is actually super bright and I did look you up on the internet afterward.”
Why did she get the impression that “sensible” was not the word he was thinking of right now? Perhaps it was time to leave.
He must have decided the same, because he strode past her and opened the door. Graham waited on the other side.
By the time she entered the elevator, Tara was grinning like the mad woman Christian no doubt thought her to be. She’d done it—broken Rule Number One—and hadn’t been struck down by a bolt from above. Then again, maybe it was a delayed reaction. Maybe that bolt would hit her as she walked out the door. Her grin faded.
“Are you okay?’
The elevator had stopped, but Graham watched her, a slight frown on his face.
“Sorry?” she said.
“Mr. Roth can be overwhelming when you first meet him.”
“He was very kind. I’m just a little worried about what he’ll find out.”
“I’m sure it will be fine.” Graham pressed the button and the doors parted. A man stood waiting, and Tara’s mouth fell open.
He looked like a rock star. An enormous rock star. Shoulder length blond hair pulled into a ponytail, blond designer stubble, lots of black leather. She had a brief impression of him smiling at her, before Graham nudged her out of the elevator.
The rock star inhaled deeply as she passed. “Mmm. Sugar and spice.”
Her feet slowed, but Graham somehow maneuvered her, not very gently, across the reception area. She glanced over her shoulder. The rock star was definitely smiling.
The cold air hit her face as Graham escorted her from the building.
“Mr. Roth told me to make another appointment in a couple of days’ time.”
“Friday,” he said. “Seven o’clock.”
“I can take time off, come during the day, if it’s easier.”
“Mr. Roth prefers evening appointments. Seven will be fine.”
He disappeared back into the building. Glancing at the dark alley opposite, Tara took a deep breath and set off down the brightly lit street.
Now for Rule Number Two.
Christian Roth stared at the closed door. He’d lived a long time, and very little surprised him these days. But her cat?
He inhaled, catching the lingering scent of her on the air. It was mouthwatering; a sweetness tinged with a sharp, bitter flavor he found intoxicating. He’d spent the entire interview wondering whether she tasted as good as she smelled.
She was also ravishingly pretty, with that bright blond hair and huge green eyes. But that wasn’t usually enough to catch his attention. There was something more, something very different about Tara Collins. He just couldn’t work out what.
Yesterday, someone had left him a very cryptic message, suggesting he should meet her. He’d been undecided. Then earlier this evening, Piers had called and told him there’d been a demon sighting close to his building. Hunting demons wasn’t Christian’s job anymore, but he’d gone as a favor. He’d tracked the demon to the alley opposite and then been totally distracted by a delectable blonde who’d crashed into him and sent his senses reeling.
She’d had the same effect when she walked into his office. For the first time in what seemed like an age, his hunger had risen. Even now, his gums ached with the need to feed. If it hadn’t been for Piers’ imminent arrival, he’d have gone hunting tonight with little Tara Collins as his prey.
But Piers was on his way. First the phone call, now a personal visit. Piers was head of the Order of the Shadow Accords, the organization that policed the supernatural world, and whatever he wanted, it was unlikely to be good news. Still, Christian couldn’t deny the twinge of excitement that twisted his guts. He’d made the right decision to leave the Order, but he missed the exhilaration of the chase, the thrill of the kill.
Graham stuck his head around. He had a slightly frazzled look in his eyes, no doubt from the unexpected visitor; Piers tended to have that effect on humans, even ones like Graham, who had spent time around their kind and knew what they were.
“He’s here,” Graham said.
“Send him in.”
“Another thing—Piers saw your new client in reception, and I’m guessing he liked what he saw.”
“Shit.” He’d have to warn Piers off, which was bound to pique his interest.
What was so alluring about Tara Collins?
Piers was dressed in his usual gear, black leather pants and a long black leather coat. Tall, around Christian’s six-foot-four, he was lean and hard, and beneath the coat, he’d be armed with enough firepower to take down an army of demons. He looked exactly what he was—a killer.
He grasped Christian in a huge bear hug, and clapped him on the shoulders. Then his hands fell away, and he stepped back.
“Christian, you look like shit.” A slow grin spread across his face. “In fact, it’s worse than shit—you look like a businessman.”
“I am a businessman.”
“A boring businessman.”
Christian didn’t bother to deny it.
“You also look hungry.”
“I haven’t fed in a few days.”
“Weeks then.” Christian shrugged. “It’s not a problem.”
“Talking of eating, I ran into someone coming out of the elevator. Young, blond.”
“Leave her alone.”
“She smelled delicious.”
“She’s a client. I don’t want you eating my clients. Now, what brings you here?”
Piers shoved his hands in his pockets and wandered across to the windows to stare out at the lights of the city. He appeared outwardly calm but Christian knew him too well. Something was bothering him and Christian had to curb his impatience as he waited.
Piers turned back to face him. “I want you to come back.”
It wasn’t anything he’d expected and he frowned. “Not going to happen. I left the Order twenty years ago—for good.”
“Come on, Christian, you know it’s not that simple.”
“Can’t you cope? You want me to come back and take over?”
“Hell, no,” Piers said. “I like being the boss. We’ll take you on as a consultant.” His eyes drifted down over Christian. “You look like a consultant. Besides, don’t you miss it?” Piers moved behind the desk, sat in the huge leather chair, and spun. “This is fun, but it hardly compares to hunting demons.” He came to a halt facing Christian. “How can you live like this?”
Piers considered him for a moment, head to one side, weighing his next move. “Gabriel’s dead.”
Shock ripped through Christian. And following close on his disbelief came a wave of regret. The emotion was unexpected, and he turned away to give himself time to think.
Gabriel was the youngest of the Order’s agents, but he’d still been strong. He should have been stronger than anything he came up against.
“We need you back, Christian.”
“Tell me what happened to Gabriel.”
“We don’t know what happened to him. He went out on a call last Friday night—a typical minor demon sighting—and vanished. He never called in. Nothing.”
“So how do you know he’s dead?”
“What else could it be? We haven’t heard from him in five days. Besides, Ella confirmed it. You know she’s never been wrong.”
A ripple of distaste ran through him at the mention of the Order’s tame witch. Ella had long ago given herself over to the dark practices, but she was powerful, so the Order protected her.
“She also believes something big is coming,” Piers said.
“She couldn’t say. But there’s more. It was Ella who told us to come to you.”
Christian’s eyes narrowed as he processed that piece of information. Not good news. “Why?”
“Again, she couldn’t say, just that you had an important part to play.”
“Couldn’t say, or wouldn’t? Does she know more?”
“I don’t think so, but you know Ella—she has her own agendas.”
“You were fools to keep her on. I told you that when you took over. You should have eliminated her after the last time.”
Piers smiled. “That’s rich, coming from you.”
Christian pursed his lips. It was an ongoing argument between them. “Do you really believe we’re evil?”
“Good, evil, who knows? By most peoples’ standards we are. So, are you coming back? Will you help?”
“I need to think about it.”
But it was a lie—he didn’t need to think. Excitement unfurled deep inside him, rising to the surface and mingling with the hunger that already stirred in his blood. He knew he’d go back.
Piers grinned. “You’ll be back. Just don’t take too long.” He got up, nodded, and left the room.
Christian sank into the chair behind his desk and rested his head on the back of the seat, staring into space. So few emotions touched him now, but he recognized sadness. Gabriel had been one of his, the last of his offspring.
Christian had left The Order after the last demon war, sickened by the carnage, but also aware of the darkness rising within himself, of the part of him that reveled in the slaughter, that loved to slake his hunger with demon blood.
So he’d stepped down, pursued a different life, a life among humans.
Now Gabriel was dead, and Christian would have his revenge. He’d hunt down whatever had taken Gabe, kill them, and drain their blood. It was a long time since he’d feasted on immortal blood. Humans were fine, but nothing beat the blood of a demon.
His hunger rose. The office suddenly seemed like a cage. He needed to get out into the night.
Graham glanced up as he entered the outer office. “You have a finance meeting in half an hour,” he said as Christian paused by the desk.
“Where are you going?”
Christian smiled, with a small flash of fang. “I’m going hunting.”