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The Predator: Chapter 1

Scenting

Present Day

 

The knife was digging into her thigh.

She was not supposed to be here.

The thought kept ringing through Morana’s head on repeat, her nerves stretched taut even as she tried to appear aloof. Holding her full champagne glass aloft, she pretended to sip from it, her eyes constantly scanning the crowd. While she knew taking a few sips of the bubbly would do wonders to calm her frazzled nerves, Morana refrained. She needed a clear head more than liquid courage for tonight. Maybe. Hopefully.

The party was in full swing, hosted in the sprawling lawns of the home of someone in the Maroni family. Damn Outfit. It was a good thing she had done as much research as she could in the last few days.

Morana glanced around the well-lit garden from the shadows, seeing the faces she had seen in the news over the years. A few she had seen in her own house growing up. She saw the soldiers of the Outfit, milling around with stoic faces. She saw the women, mostly decorating the arms of the men they were there with. She saw the enemies.

Ignoring the itch from her wig, Morana just observed. She had taken great care to look like someone else tonight. The long black gown she wore hid the knives on her thighs, one of which had somehow twisted and was trying to dig into her. The bracelet on her hand had been a purchase from the dark web, with a hidden slot for an aerosol poison that wasn’t available in the market. And she’d tied her dark hair tightly to her head, donning a silky wig of strawberry blonde hair, her lips siren red. It wasn’t her. But it was necessary. She’d been planning this night for days. She’d been relying on this plan to work for days. She couldn’t screw it up. Not after being so close.

She looked at the mansion, looming behind the crowd. It was a beast. There was no other way to describe it. Like an ancient castle buried in the hills of Scotland, the house – an odd hybrid of modern mansion and primeval castle – was a beast. A beast with something of hers in its belly.

The cool air fragrant with the night blooms, Morana surreptitiously shook off the chills trying to lick at her skin.

The sound of a man’s boisterous laughter drew her attention. Eyes lingering on the built, grey-haired man laughing with other men in the north corner of the property, Morana studied him. His face was wrinkled with age, hands clean from where she could see.

Oh, how he had blood on those hands. So, so much blood. Not that anyone in their world didn’t. But he had carved a niche for himself as the bloodiest of them all, including her father.

Lorenzo ‘Bloodhound’ Maroni was the boss of the Tenebrae Outfit, his career longer than four decades, his rap sheet longer than her arm, his cold-blooded attitude a thing of admiration in their world. Morana had been around people like him long enough to not let that shake her. Or rather, not let it show.

Beside Lorenzo stood his older son Dante ‘The Wall’ Maroni. While his pretty face could fool some, Morana had done enough research not to underestimate him. Built like a wall, the man towered over almost everyone, his physique solid. If rumors were to be believed, he had taken up a key role in the organization almost a decade ago.

Morana pretended to sip her champagne. Exchanging a polite smile with a woman who glanced her way, she finally let her eyes wander to the man who stood silently beside Dante.

Tristan Caine.

He was an anomaly. The only non-blood member to have taken the oath with blood in the family. The only non-blood member to be that high up in the Outfit. No one knew exactly where he was placed in the hierarchy, but people knew he was very high up. Everyone had theories as to why, but no one really knew for sure.

Morana took him in. He stood tall, just an inch or so shorter than Dante, in a casual three-piece black suit sans the tie. His dark blonde hair was almost a dark brown, sheared close to his head, his eyes a light color from the distance.

Morana knew they were blue. A striking blue. She’d seen pictures of him, always candid shots in which he looked surprisingly blank. Morana was used to expressionless faces in their world, but he took it up a notch.

While his muscular frame was attractive, it wasn’t the reason Morana couldn’t look away. It was because of the stories she’d heard about him in the last few years, mostly by eavesdropping on conversations, especially her father’s.

As the stories went, Tristan Caine had been the son of Lorenzo Maroni’s personal bodyguard, who had died while protecting the boss almost twenty years ago. Tristan had been young, with a mother who had taken off after her husband’s death.

Lorenzo, for reasons unknown, had taken the young boy under his wing and personally trained him in skills of the trade. And today, Tristan Caine was a son to Bloodhound Maroni. Some said Maroni favored him more over his own blood. In fact, word was, after Maroni’s retirement, Tristan would be the boss of the Outfit, not Dante.

Tristan ‘The Predator’ Caine.

They called him the predator. His reputation preceded him. He rarely went on the hunt but when he did, it was over. When he did, he went straight for the jugular. No distractions. No playing around. For all his unruffled attitude, the man was more lethal than the knife cutting into her thigh.

He was also the reason she had come to the party.

She was going to kill Tristan Caine.

 


 

Life as the daughter of the boss of the Shadow Port family had prepared her for a lot of things. Not this. Despite growing up surrounded by crime, Morana had been surprisingly sheltered from the ugliness of their world. She had been home-schooled, gone to university, and now freelanced as a developer. All very plain.

That was exactly why she was so not equipped to handle this. She’d not been prepared to infiltrate the house of her father’s enemies and by extension hers. And she’d definitely not been prepared to murder that said enemy.

Maybe she didn’t really have to kill him. Perhaps, kidnapping would work just as well.

As if.

For over an hour, Morana watched Tristan Caine carefully without being too obvious, waiting for him to just move. Finally, after staying glued to Maroni’s side with a dark scowl on his handsome face, he detached himself and moved to the bar.

Morana debated whether to approach him out in the open or wait for him to head into the house. After a split second of indecision, she decided on the latter. The first option was way too dangerous and was she exposed, it would not only mean her death sentence but a war between the two families. A mob war. She shuddered, just thinking of all the morbid tales she’d heard over the years.

She also wondered if she was being logical in wanting to kill the man.

Maybe not, but she did need to get into the house and find where he was hiding her codes.

It has all started as a dare from her ex-boyfriend (not that anyone knew about him). Being a developer himself, he had challenged her to create the most complex set of codes she could. Being a suck for dares that she was, she had succumbed.

Those codes were her Frankenstein. A powerful monster that went wrong, out of her control. They could digitally deface anyone, extract out every dirty secret from the deepest parts of the web, and destroy entire governments, entire mobs if it were to fall into the wrong hands.

They had fallen into the worst hands possible. Her asshole of an ex – Jackson – had stolen the codes when she was done three weeks ago, and disappeared.

It was when she’d started to track him that she’d discovered Jackson had actually been sent to get close to her by the Outfit. More specifically, Tristan Caine. How he’d learned about her skills and the codes, she didn’t know.

She was screwed. So, so screwed.

There was no way she could tell her father. None. The offenses against her were too high. Dating an outsider, writing a time bomb of codes without any protection, but worst of all, knowing where the codes had ended up – her father would kill her without batting an eye. She knew it, and frankly, she didn’t care. But innocent people and bystanders didn’t deserve to have their lives destroyed by her mistakes.

So, after weeks of researching and stalking, she’d finally faked herself an invitation to the party in Tenebrae. Her father thought she was there meeting her non-existent friends from college. Her protective detail thought she was drunk and sleeping in her locked hotel suite.

She’d escaped. Come this deep into the den. She had to get those codes and get the hell out of there. And she had to do all that while silencing Tristan Caine. The only way to do that was to kill him.

Thinking of how he’d masterminded everything with Jackson, her blood boiled.

Oh yes, killing him won’t be a problem. The urge intensified every time she thought of the sick bastard. Morana grit her teeth.

Finally, after throwing back a shot of scotch, Tristan Caine moved towards the mansion. 

Showtime.

Nodding to herself, Morana put her glass on a tray of one of the many waiters and quietly made her way towards the secluded path he was taking. Sticking to the shadows, her dark dress ascertained she wouldn’t stand out. A few steps on to the path, she saw the party disappearing behind her, as the bushes that shrouded the way grew thicker around her.

Up ahead, she saw Caine’s tall, broad figure striding agilely towards the steps of the house. He climbed them two at a time, and she rushed on her heels, trying to keep him in her line of vision.

Her eyes darting around the area, she bent low and climbed the steps. Over to her left, she could see the party and the guards stationed around the lawns.

Frowning at the lack of security around the house itself, Morana entered the house through the space between the huge double doors.

And saw a guard heading straight in her direction through the lobby.

Adrenaline hitting hard, she ducked behind the first pillar she saw, her eyes darting around the huge entrance with an over-the-top chandelier. Her gaze tracked Caine taking a corridor to the left of the lobby, his back disappearing from view at the end.

She suddenly felt a hand pull on her arm.

The large guard frowned down at her.

‘Are you lost, miss?’ he asked, his eyes suspicious, and before she could rethink, Morana picked up the vase beside her and smashed it over his head. The guard’s eyes widened before he crumpled down and Morana escaped, berating herself.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

That had been sloppier than she would have liked.

Taking a deep breath, focusing on the task at hand, Morana crouched low, heading towards the hallway. Once inside, she made a run for it, stopping to pick her heels up in her hands to avoid making any noise. Within seconds, she was at the turn somewhere in the back of the house, looking at a set of stairs leading up to a single door.

Swallowing, her heart pounding, she climbed up.

Reaching the landing, she tiptoed her way to the door. Taking in a deep, quick breath, she pulled the knife out of its sheath from her thigh, aware of the little bruise it had left there. She reached for the knob, donning her heels, and turned it open.

Leaning her neck inside, she looked around the semi-dark guest room of sorts.

It was empty.

Frowning, she stepped inside, shutting the door behind her quietly.

The door on the other side of the large room opened before she even had a chance to take in her surroundings. Heart hammering, she crouched in the corner, seeing Tristan Caine step back out of the bathroom, throwing his suit jacket on the bed. Morana observed the suspenders stark against his white shirt, the crisp fabric unbuttoned at the collar, stretched taut across the broad expanse of his chest. A very muscular chest. She bet he had abs too.

Although she hated herself for noticing, she couldn’t deny the man was very, very attractive. Too bad he was a bastard to match.

She saw him take his phone out from the pocket of his slacks, scrolling through the screen, his concentration entirely on whatever he was seeing. Watching his muscular back towards her, she straightened from her crouch in the shadows.

It was now or never.

Walking behind him, her hand slightly trembling with the knife gripped in her paling knuckles, she inched forward, not even daring to breathe lest she alert him. Almost two steps behind him, she placed the knife on his back, right above where his heart was supposed to be, and uttered as coldly as she could.

‘You twitch and you die.’

She saw the muscles in his back stiffen, one by one, even before she had spoken. It would have fascinated her had she not been so shit scared and raving mad.

‘Interesting,’ he remarked evenly, as though his life wasn’t two inches of flesh away in her trembling hands. She steadied her grip.

‘Drop the phone and raise your hands,’ she ordered, watching him comply without hesitation.

His voice broke the tense silence. ‘Since I’m not already dead, I assume you want something.’

The completely unruffled tone of voice did nothing to soothe her nerves. Why wasn’t he even slightly bothered by this? She could carve him open. Was she missing something?

Sweat broke out over her back, her wig itching on her scalp, but she focused on his back. Pulling out a second knife from her other thigh, she shoved it against his side, right against his kidney. His back tensed slightly more but his hands didn’t waver, staying completely upright.

‘What do you want?’ he asked, the tone unwavering like his hands.

Morana inhaled deeply, gulped, and spoke. ‘The thumb drive Jackson gave you.’

“Jackson, who?”

Morana dug her blades a fraction deeper in warning. “Don’t pretend you don’t know shit, Mr. Caine. I know everything about your dealings with Jackson Miller.”

His back stayed rigid, her knives a second away from breaking skin. “Now, where is the drive?”

There was silence for a few beats before he tilted his head towards the left. “My jacket. Inner pocket.’

Morana blinked in surprise. She hadn’t expected him to give it up so easily. Maybe he was actually a wuss under all that macho crap. Maybe the rumors and stories were all fabricated.

She looked at the black jacket, and it happened in the split second of her distraction.

Her back slammed into the wall beside the door, her right hand holding the knife up the wall, restrained by a tight grip. Her left hand with the knife came against her own throat, controlled by a much stronger, and much angrier Tristan Caine.

Morana blinked up into his eyes – his very blue, very pissed off eyes – stunned at the turn of events. She wasn’t prepared for this. Shit, she was so not prepared for this.

Morana gulped. The blade of her own knife clutched in her own hand was gripped by his, right against her neck. She felt the cool metal threaten her tan skin. His second hand, large, rough, held her other hand above her head, his fingers wrapped like manacles around her wrist. She felt his much larger, muscular body press into hers, his chest warm against her heaving breasts, the musky scent of his cologne invading her senses, his legs retraining hers, rendering her completely immobile.

Swallowing, she looked up into his eyes, straightening her spine. If she had to die, she wasn’t going to die like a coward, especially not at the hands of someone like him.

He leaned closer, his face just inches from hers, his eyes cold and voice brutal as he spoke. ‘This spot, right here,’ he spoke quietly, pressing the tip of the knife against a spot right under her jaw on her tilted neck. ‘It’s an easy spot. I nick you here, and you die before you can blink.’

Her stomach churned but she grit her teeth, refusing to show fear, silently listening as he moved the knife to her fluttering pulse near the center of her neck. ‘This spot. You die but it won’t be clean.’

Her heart thundered with vengeance in her chest, her palms sweating at the look in his eyes. He moved the knife again to a spot near the base of her neck. ‘And this… You know what happens if I cut you here?’

Morana stayed silent, just watching him, his voice taunting, almost seductive with the temptation of death.

‘You’ll feel pain,’ he continued, undaunted. ‘Bleeding to death. You will feel every drop of blood that leaves your body.” His voice rolled over her skin. “Death will come, but much, much later. And the pain will be excruciating.’

He held the knife steady to the spot, his voice suddenly chilling. ‘Now, if you don’t want that, tell me who sent you and what drive you are talking about.’

Morana blinked at him in confusion, before realization dawned. He didn’t recognize her. Of course, he didn’t. They had never really met, and as first meetings went, this one left a lot to be desired. He’d probably just seen her pictures in passing like she had his.

Wetting her dry lips, Morana whispered.  ‘The drive is mine.’

She saw his eyes narrow slightly. ‘Is it?’

Her own narrowed as well, the anger that had fled in the face of fear returning with a vengeance. ‘Yes, it is, you bastard. I worked my ass off on those codes and I’ll be damned if I’ll let you use it. Jackson stole it from me and I’ve traveled all the way from Shadow Port because I need it back.’

There was a beat of silence, his eyes hovering over her features before surprise flared in them. ‘Morana Vitalio?’

Morana gave a sharp nod, careful of the blade at her throat. He looked her up and down, his eyes lingering on her wig and her lips, taking in every inch of her that he could before his gaze returned to hers.

‘Well, well, well,’ he murmured, almost to himself as he pulled the blade away an inch, his scruffy jaw loosening now that he knew her identity.

She opened her mouth to ask him to take the knife away just as the door beside them banged loudly. Morana yelped a little in surprise and he let go of the hand above her head, putting his free hand over her mouth.

Seriously? What did he think she was going to do? Scream for help in the Outfit household?

‘Tristan, have you seen anyone in the house? Someone knocked out Matteo downstairs,’ a heavy voice spoke from the other side, a slight accent deep in it.

Morana felt lead settle in her gut, her eyes widening as his gaze locked with hers, his right eyebrow rising as he answered back.

‘No, I haven’t.’ His eyes never moved from hers. ‘I’ll be down in a few minutes.’

Morana heard the steps shuffling away and after a few seconds, the hand from her mouth retreated. His body didn’t.

‘Would you mind removing the knife?’ she asked quietly, her eyes pinning holes into him.

That raised eyebrow notched even higher before he leaned back in, the knife never moving an inch from the place. ‘You should know not to come into the house of the enemy, all alone, unprotected. And you should know never to sneak up on a predator. Once we catch the scent of your blood, it’s a matter of the hunt.’

Morana clenched her jaw, her palm itching to lay one on him and his patronizing attitude. ‘I want that drive back.’

He stayed silent for one long second, before stepping back, releasing her arms but swiping the knives from her, checking them.

‘Coming here was foolish, Miss Vitalio,’ he spoke quietly, looking at her. ‘Had my people found you, you’d be dead. If your people found out, you’d be dead. Did you want to start a war?’ 

Hypocrite much? Morana took a step closer to him, inches of space between their frames, glaring. ‘I’ll be dead anyway, so it doesn’t seem foolish. Do you have any idea what the contents of that drive can do? This hypothetical war you are accusing me of starting- imagine that but ten times worse.’ She inhaled deeply, trying to reason with him. ‘Look, just give me the codes so I’ll destroy them and be on my merry way.’

There was a heavy silence for long minutes, his eyes contemplating her, making her squirm a bit under the scrutiny. Handing her the knife after minutes that seemed to stretch, he spoke. ‘Under the stairs, there is a door. It’ll lead you to the gates. Get out of here before someone sees you and chaos breaks. I’m having a quiet night after months and the last thing I want to do is clean up your blood.’

Morana inhaled deeply, taking the knives from him. ‘Please.’

For the first time, Morana saw something else flicker in his eyes. He just crossed his arms over his chest, tilting his head to look at her.

‘Take the door.’

Sighing, she knew she was beaten. There was nothing else she could do. And going back home meant telling her father. Which meant either death or exile. Fuck.

Nodding, accepting the sour taste in her mouth, she turned on her heel, hand going to the knob on the door, feeling his eyes on her back.

‘Miss Vitalio?’

She turned her neck to look back at him, to see his eyes glittering with something that made her heart skip and stomach flutter. He pinned her with the look for a long moment, before speaking.

‘You owe me.’

Morana blinked in surprise, not understanding. “Excuse me?”

His gaze got even more intense, his blue eyes searing her. “You owe me,” he repeated.

Her lips twisted. ‘What the hell for?’

“For your life,” he stated. ‘Anyone but me and you would not have been breathing.’

Morana frowned in confusion and saw his lips twitch at that, even as his eyes stared at her with that look she couldn’t explain.

‘I’m no gentleman to give you a free pass,’ he spoke quietly. ‘You are in my debt.’

And then, he closed the space between them. Morana swallowed, her hand tightening on the doorknob even as her heart pounded, and she tilted her head back to keep their eyes locked. He stared down at her for long moments, before leaning in, their gazes never moving, and whispered, his breath ghosting over her face, his musky scent acute in her nose.

‘And I will collect it one day.’

Morana felt her breath hitch.

And then she ran out of the room.


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