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The Predator: Chapter 4

Bleeding

Morana groaned at the laptop screen, ignoring the crick in her neck from staring at it for too long. She was trying every possible combination and permutation of ideas to track the codes, and hitting a wall every single time. Biting her lips, her fingers flying over the keyboards, Morana typed the latest codes and pressed the escape button, checking to see if the failsafe would work, and saw the screen go blank.

Again.

Damn it!

Frustrated beyond belief, she hit her palms down on the table and shoved away, pacing towards her bedroom window, pulling her glasses down, a small throb starting to pound right under her temples. It was past midnight and she was nowhere close to working any kind of solution out. Though that wasn’t her only source of frustration. She’d wanted to speak to her father after dinner two nights ago, and the moment she had returned back to the mansion after being held up by Tristan Caine, she’d been told by her father’s man that he’d had to go out of town on something extremely urgent, and it was unclear when he would return. Though a part of Morana had been relieved at the delay in that inevitable conversation, another had tensed, wanting to face whatever wrath and just be done with it. 

For two days Morana had tried and failed, only fuelling her frustration higher.

What had added gasoline to that fire, though, had been stray thoughts of Tristan Caine, popping completely out of the blue at the most random of times. Not his rugged looks or his reputation. No. His intensity. For some reason, he had caught her off guard, his burning hatred for her, his constant aura of threat something she had never experienced before, and something that only fed her own loathing of the man.

She grit her teeth, turning her face towards the window, looking out into the dark garden below. A huge elm tree shadowed her suite from the driveway, enough to give her a view of the visitors but not let them see her.

The property was sleeping, only a slight breeze blowing in the gentle night, the moon an incomplete oval shape in the dark sky littered with stars.

And she was tired. So tired. The constant responsibility of her actions had been chipping away at her slowly from the inside, her own failed desperate efforts only aiding in that. She just wanted to disclose the entire thing to her father and face whatever punishment he deemed necessary. She just wanted to be done with it, one way or another, so she could focus on getting the codes before they fell into wrong hands. That is assuming she would be alive to do so. Haunting the thief from beyond the grave was really not her style.

She also needed to come clean for another reason. For whatever intents and purposes, the Outfit sons had knowledge and interest in the codes. What she didn’t know was whether Tristan Caine did have the codes and was pretending not to have them, or if he was genuinely searching for them. Nothing about the man was genuine. Layers buried beneath layers. He kept her from being discovered and killed one instant and threatened her life the next. What was his game? A man who could lie to his own blood brother as easily as he had, could he be honest about anything? And even if he was, she had no reason to believe him.

But intent on playing the devil’s advocate, her brain came up with the other very glaring, very dangerous possibility. If, for some reason, Tristan Caine was indeed being truthful, then that implied someone else had hired Jackson to shadow her and gather intel, someone who could be in the Outfit but not likely, since Dante Maroni and Tristan Caine would be in the clear. And unless Bloodhound Maroni himself had an interest in her, which was highly doubtful, she couldn’t think of another person in the Outfit who even knew about her skills.

Which meant there could be a possible third party involved. A mysterious third party, which was never a good thing. Who were they and how could they know about her work?

And staring at the moon, another possibility knocked her brain. Could it be someone from her own side? Someone looking to start a war, using her as the pawn? There was no shortage of people this side who would love to see the Outfit fall, but could anyone really be brazen enough to go after her?

The sudden vibration of her phone broke the silence, startling her, an embarrassing yelp leaving her mouth before she could stop it. Her heart racing, Morana took a deep breath, shaking her head at herself. Walking back to the table where her phone continued to vibrate, she glanced at the caller id. It was unknown.

Hesitant, she picked it up, pressing the answer icon, and stayed silent, waiting for the person to speak.

There was silence for a few beats.

‘Ms. Vitalio.’

Stunned, she inhaled deeply, ignoring the slight shiver that ran down her spine, ignoring the way her heart started to pound, her eyes closing as the memory of his thumb stroking her jaw washed over her, her muscles clenching. She hated it. She hated her traitorous flesh reacting to that low, husky voice. She hated the extra breath she took because of the way it washed over her. She hated that he’d caught her off guard again.

But she had learned this game in her cradle.

‘Who is this?’ she asked, keeping her tone flat, bored.

There was a pause for a few seconds, and Morana could feel the tension across the line. She sat down on the chair, glancing at the number, and quickly typed it into her laptop, running it for details.

‘Good to see your sharp tongue doesn’t follow a clock,’ said the voice, laced with nothing, absolutely nothing, the tone as deliberately flat as hers had been. The result on the laptop was scrambled. Sneaky bastard.

‘Says the man calling me at midnight,’ she retorted, typing in another command to overrule the older one, tracking the number. ‘How did you get my number?’

Something entered his voice. ‘You really don’t know who you are talking to, are you?’

Arrogant jerk. But resourceful. She knew that. The headache was pushed to the back of her mind as the trace progressed to 89%.

‘The thing is…’

If voices could be drinks, his was a centuries-old vintage whiskey, rolling off the tongue, down the throat, leaving a trail of fire inside, making every cell in the body aware that it had been consumed. Morana closed her eyes, taking a sip of the whiskey, before suddenly realizing what she was doing. She was on the phone, at midnight, with the enemy, savoring his voice. What the hell was wrong with her?

Before he could utter another word, she cut the call, putting her phone on the table, exhaling loudly. Control. This was ridiculous. She needed to stop letting him throw her in the wind. Or next, he’d be throwing her to the wolves.

Her laptop pinged with the completed trace results. She opened her eyes.

And gasped in shock.

The call had originated from her property. From outside her wing, to be precise. What the fuck was he doing there?!

Scrambling to her feet before she could stop herself, Morana took out one of her knives from the drawer, the very knives he had turned on her. Picking up her phone in the other hand, she slowly slid next to the window where she had been standing moments ago. Peeking outside, Morana let herself glance around, trying to see into the shadows.

Her phone buzzed again, and she bit her lip, before picking up.

‘Don’t ever cut my call,’ he said, his voice menacing, hard.

Morana gulped but spoke lightly. ‘Sorry, I must have missed the memo. Did I bruise your gigantic ego?’

Hard pause. ‘As much as I detest this, I’m here to talk business.’

‘Since when does the Outfit does business with the daughter of the enemy?’

‘Since she created codes that can destroy both sides.’

Morana grit her teeth, anger flushing her system. ‘And you’re here to what? Make me agree with your charming personality? Should have sent Dante for that.’

She could feel the tense silence pulsating between them, the urge to cut the connection again acute.

‘I would have but he can’t do what I’m about to.’

Before Morana could blink, the line went blank. Frowning, she put the phone in the pocket of her bunny shorts, gripping the knife hard with the other, and looked out again, confounded as to what he’d meant.

Seeing a shadow move slightly, Morana squinted through her glasses, barely able to make out his figure. There was no way he could ever come out of the shadows on the property. From her vantage point, she could see the guards patrolling at the far end, the security extra tight, especially with her father gone. They would turn and head towards her wing within two minutes.

Tristan Caine was toast.

But he was one smooth toast.

She saw the smoothness in his movements as he slinked away from the shadows, merging with new ones, barely visible even from her vantage. There was no way he was going to make it past the front door undetected. No way.

Except he didn’t seem to be heading towards the front door to his left. With lithe grace she couldn’t help but admire, even as she chided herself for it, Morana watched, confused, as he headed straight for the wall. What was he going to do – hulk his way through them?

He stopped towards the right, still in the shadows, but visible enough that she could roughly make out the black ensemble he was wearing. Puzzled, and more than curious to see what he would do next, Morana felt her jaw drop when he jumped on the windowsill of the ground floor study, taking a hold of the metal pipes that ran beside it, heaving his body up.

He was going to climb up.

He was going to climb up?

He was dying tonight, she was certain of it. Tristan Caine, the blood of the Outfit, was going to splat down on the ground beneath her window and die on her property and start a fucking war. Was he insane? She didn’t give a fuck if he wanted to break his thick neck but couldn’t he do it away from her city under someone else’s window? It would be better if the guards caught him alive.

Even as her mind told her to alert the guards, her tongue stayed stuck to the roof of her mouth, her eyes transfixed on his form. For a big guy, he was very, very athletic. She didn’t want to appreciate anything about him but watching him move, there was no way she could deny it. She was a bitch to him, not blind.

His hand grabbed the metal rail of the first-floor balcony, and he let go of his footing, hanging in the air by the strength of one arm. Then, he gripped the railing with the other hand and swung his feet up, jumping on the balcony with a grace he should not have been capable of, not with those many muscles on that body, muscles she knew were very hard and very much real from being pressed against them, repeatedly.

The timing of his jump coincided perfectly with the patrolling guards, who made their rounds, completely unaware of the intruder on the property. Tristan Caine stayed crouched on the balcony, silently observing the guards below as they walked away. That was supposed to be the best muscle in the city. Clearly, she needed to get them fired.

Shaking her head, she looked down the window, unable to see how he would reach her window from the balcony below since there were no pipes, no rails, nothing. Just wall. The area was clear again.

Just when she thought she couldn’t be any more surprised, she saw him jump on the railing, his balance perfect. He didn’t even take a breath before walking towards the side of the balcony, on the railing, on agile feet, coming to a stop as he faced the wall.

Now what, hotshot?

He looked around carefully, before taking something out from the pocket of his black cargo pants, and before Morana could even think ‘bomb’, he was swinging it up and hooking it on the sill of her window. And the next thing she knew, his hands were on her windowsill and he was heaving his entire body up, ready to get in the second window she was standing behind. A walking, talking Mission Impossible, that’s what he was. And Morana’s stomach was in knots, exactly as it had been every time she had watched the movies, her heart pounding in her ears like she had been the one to scale two floors of her building.

At least her undercover had been more covert, less show-off.

The moment he heaved his body inside, Morana stepped back, holding her knife beside her head, her stance combative just like her instructor had taught her.

He landed on the carpeted floor, rolling off his back in the same motion, and standing up on his feet, his black full-sleeved muscle shirt hugging every sinew and muscle of his torso, the loose cargo pants tucked into black army boots, a com attached to his ear. He looked ready to infiltrate a fortress. She should be flattered, she supposed.

Except she realized, in that precise moment that her own inventory was complete and his began, that she was dressed for the night, in her bunny shorts and loose university t-shirt that almost hung off one shoulder, and no bra.

Even as heat rushed to her face at her realization, she stayed in the same stance, threatening, keeping her face completely blank, watching him. His sharp blue eyes locked with hers, sending a frisson of tingles down her body before she tamped it down, her fingers flexing on the knife. He touched his earpiece, never removing his gaze from hers, and spoke quietly.

‘I’m in. Muting.’

How eloquent.

His eyes drifted to her knife, before coming back to hers, his scruffy jaw relaxed, his entire posture non-threatening. But she knew better. She’d learned how quickly he switched first-hand, and she had no intention of even breathing easy as long as he stood within five feet of her.

He didn’t speak a word, just looking at her with those unnerving eyes. She knew what he was trying to do. Shake her. And even though it worked, she didn’t let it show.

‘The way you scaled the walls,’ she began, in a conversational tone that was so fake she could roll her eyes at it, ‘you just confirmed what I always knew you were.’

He just raised a lone eyebrow.

‘A reptile,’ she provided, smiling forcefully at him.

The side of his lip with the damn scar twitched, his eyes never losing the hardness. ‘Predator.’

‘Delusions of grandeur,’ she nodded, ignoring the way the intensity in the gaze made her want to stop breathing. Had she been a dog, this was the kind of gaze that would have made her want to roll over on her back and offer her warm belly up. She wasn’t a dog, just a proverbial female equivalent to him. She had to keep it that way. Focus. ‘Does your psychiatrist know you suffer from them?’

He took a step closer, and she straightened, pointing her knife at him, keeping her hand steady. ‘Nuh-uh. You move an inch and you’ll go back with a scar.’

He stilled, his gaze intensifying. ‘And you call me the one with delusions.’

Morana grit her teeth, the urge to just give him a plain old punch in the face and possibly break his nose acute. She stayed back. The sooner she get this over with, the better.

‘I’m sure you aren’t here to stare at me, as much as you seem to enjoy doing that,’ she began, never removing her eyes from his. ‘Why are you here?’

He blinked once, his body completely still, as though ready to pounce on the breath of a motion. ‘You broke into my house. I thought I’d return the favor.’

Morana kept her mouth shut, waiting him out. Her blood was rushing way too fast in her body, her skin way too warm for comfort, her pulse way higher than normal. Adrenaline. She was flooded with adrenaline. Nothing more. Fight and flight. Instinct. Yup, that explained it.

He tilted his head to the side, his eyes never wavering, the motion making him look even more lethal in the muted lamp lights of the room.

‘As I said,’ he began, in that voice that had made her put the phone down, the voice of whiskey, the voice that made her want to roll her eyes back into her head. She shook herself mentally, focusing on his words. ‘This is business. Dante and I are the only ones who know about the codes on our side. You are the only one on yours, I believe?’

She didn’t respond, just waited. He continued. ‘We want to keep it that way, contained. Even the right information in the wrong hands can be disastrous.’

Scoffing, she raised her eyebrows. ‘And I should just assume you are men of honor when, in fact, I’ve seen you lie to your own side without blinking. Tell me, Mr. Caine, why should I believe a word that comes out of your mouth?’

His eyes hardened, and he took another step. Morana swiped the knife in the air in warning. He stopped.

‘I’d prefer if you didn’t,’ he spoke, the coldness entering his eyes sending a shiver down her spine.

Before she could say another word, she heard the main gates to the mansion open, the sound of horns blaring in the night as cars entered the property. At this time of the night, it only meant her father had returned.

She kept her eyes on him, watching his every move, her heart started beating faster as she realized her father was in the house, along with Tristan Caine. If she was caught, her death was guaranteed.

Morana sighed, the headache from before returning with a vengeance. ‘How do I know you don’t have the codes?’

‘I don’t,’ he simply said. She saw the conviction in his eyes. She saw the heat in them. She ignored them both.

‘Okay,’ she nodded. ‘Assuming you don’t have them, I’ve been trying to find a way to destroy them on my own for days. It’s not working.’ Her frustration notched, remembering her futile efforts. ‘I infiltrated your house, for goodness’ sake, as a last resort! Trust me, Mr. Caine, doing business with me is not a good option right now.’

His eyes narrowed on her, assessing her. ‘That’s not for you to decide. You’ve involved us in this and now you have to see it through.’

‘Or else?’ she demanded, raising her eyebrows, her arm starting to ache where she held it up beside her.

A corner of his lips lifted. ‘Or I go downstairs right now to meet your father and tell him what’s going on.’

Morana rolled her eyes, calling his bluff. ‘You wouldn’t do that. You said you want to keep it quiet. Plus, I was going to tell my father already.’

‘Were you, really?’ he asked, and she felt her hackles rise at his tone.

Before she could even straighten her spine, his hand was suddenly on her wrist, twisting her arm as the other hand twirled her around. Morana brought her leg up, trying to hit him in the knee but he sidestepped, taking a hold of both her wrists in one huge hand, pressing his chest to her back, giving her no room to move, the other hand gripping her hair painlessly but firmly, tilting her head back so she could see him behind her, the knife in her hand clattering to the carpeted floor with a muffled thud. Morana struggled against his hold, but as was the trend with them, couldn’t move.

‘Don’t play with toys you don’t understand,’ his voice whispered right against her ear, his breath ghosting over the exposed shoulder where her t-shirt had fallen away, sending a shiver through her before she could stop it, a shiver she was certain he could feel, a shiver that made her breasts heave. But the condescension in his tone made her jaw clench.

Steeling her nerves, knowing his hands were occupied, Morana threw her head back into his face and missed as he ducked at the last minute, his grip on her hands loosening. That was all she needed. Dropping down to the ground, she swiped his feet from under him while picking up the knife at the same time. The moment he fell on his back, she climbed his chest, pressing the knife right under his Adam’s apple, glaring at him.

He looked back at her, the muted lights in the room casting his face half in shadows, no hint of fear in his blue eyes, not fazed at all, his hands pinned down beside him by her thighs.

Morana leaned forward, keeping their eyes locked, and whispered, with all the anger and hatred coursing through her body. ‘One day, I’m going to carve your heart out and keep it as a souvenir. I promise.’

She’d thought he would respond with silence, or with a clenched jaw, or with another jab at her. He didn’t.

He chuckled.

Seriously?

‘You assume I have a heart, wildcat.’

But the amusement faded from his eyes as soon as it had entered. He stayed still under her, watching her, the silence between them tensing, the tension between them thickening. Awareness slithered down her spine, seeping into her bones. She could feel his heartbeat against her thigh where she straddled him, her shorts having ridden up in the struggle, exposing more of her skin than she was comfortable with. Her nipples hardened under the cotton, because of the struggle and not because of his warm muscles under her or his intense eyes piercing hers. Not because of that.

Now that she had him under her, she didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t sit on him for eternity, even though it was tempting. She couldn’t kill him in her own house, even though that was more than tempting. She couldn’t do anything. And the bastard that he was, he knew it. Hence, the relaxed posture.

Disgusted with herself, Morana stood up, removing the knife from his neck, and walked towards the window, frustration flooding her, replacing the heat now that she looked away from him. This was getting them nowhere. She closed her eyes once, before opening them, the decision made, and turned to face him, where he stood just a few feet away, watching her with that damned focused look of his.

‘So, you basically want me to work with you to find the codes and destroy them, and keep it to myself?’ she asked, keeping her voice even.

‘Yes,’ he answered simply.

Morana nodded. ‘And how will we go about it?’

‘However we have to,’ he replied, in that simple tone that brooked no arguments. ‘Wherever the leads take us.’

Morana nodded again, taking a deep breath, her eyes watching him closely. ‘I have one condition.’

The clock ticked. The lights flickered. They breathed.

He stayed silent, waiting her out. She hesitated, for some reason, before swallowing, speaking.

‘I work with Dante, not you.’

Silence.

His eyes flared with something before he tamped it down, the air between them crackling with tension, his gaze almost electric in its intensity. Morana’s heart pounded, her stomach clenching, the awareness of herself, of everything around her, sizzling through her.

He started walking towards her with slow, measured steps of the predator he was called, his blue eyes blazing with a fire she couldn’t place, his face hard, jaw clenched, muscles tense. Morana stood her ground in her bare feet, bringing the knife up to his throat just as he stepped into her personal space, the metal pressing into his neck, his other hand coming beside her head on the windowsill. He looked down at her, his throat working, his breaths warm against her face, that musky scent of his cologne faded and mixed with sweat, wrapping around her, making her skin tingle and her heart thunder as their eyes stayed locked.

Suddenly, he brought his free hand up, between the knife and his throat, and Morana’s eyes widened, stunned, as she watched him push it away from his skin, the sharp blade cutting into his hand, blood suddenly trailing down his wrist to hers, the warm liquid traveling over her elbow. The entire time he never looked away, even as she gasped, even as she tried to pull the knife away, even as she gulped. He held the knife in his fist, his inflamed eyes on hers, his blood dripping on her skin, their faces inches away, eyes unwavering, blue on hazel.

Something was happening in that moment. Something her brain couldn’t understand but her body was intuitively aware of. The rushing of blood in her ears didn’t lessen. The pounding of her heart didn’t decrease. The heaving of her chest didn’t diminish. Her knees weakened, her stomach in knots, her disbelief coursing through her body, transforming into something else, something that had never occupied her body before.

He looked down at her like a force of nature, and she stared back, unable to look away, captured by his gaze – his hard, unrelenting gaze.

And suddenly, he let go of the knife.

‘Done.’

His hard, guttural tone reached her, and he sidestepped her without sparing her another glance, jumping out the window before she could take another breath.

Morana didn’t look out to see if he’d made it out, didn’t lean down to watch him merge with the shadows, didn’t move from the spot at all.

She didn’t breathe.

Her heart thundered away in her chest like an unleashed storm cloud, her breaths rapid as though she’d run a marathon. She was trembling. All over. Her hands shook, the knife falling once again to the floor, coated in blood.

Morana looked down at the fallen knife, feeling as though a sword had pierced her chest, the tightness in her throat inexplicable, logic nowhere in the vicinity of her scrambled thoughts as she just stood there, frozen, unable to move, unable to even breathe.

Her eyes moved from the knife to her trembling hands, seeing a lone red trail on the right one, starting at her wrist and ending on her forearm, almost as though her skin had cried and swallowed a bloody tear.

The blood of her enemy. The blood of the one man she hated.

His blood.

The sight of it should have filled her with satisfaction. That he had agreed to her terms should have filled her with satisfaction. That he had left without a fuss and not turned this night into a disaster should have filled her with satisfaction.

Bending, she picked up the knife, moving almost on auto-pilot, her thoughts scattered in the wake of the tsunami inside her body, her emotions jumbled into an unrecognizable mess, her body trembling like a stray leaf in the storm. Walking forward, she dropped the bloody knife into the trash can, gazing as the red swirled and seeped into the white paper around it, seeping into it, scarring it, changing it.

As she felt the wind blowing across her exposed skin, across her frayed nerves, across her clothed flesh, Morana felt herself be filled.

But it wasn’t with satisfaction.

It was anything but satisfaction.


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