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The Predator: Chapter 14

Deciding

She couldn’t decide if she was really, really brave or really, really stupid.

Maybe an odd combination of both.

Honestly, there were times when Morana wasn’t particularly proud of herself, even while she wanted to pump her fist in the air and jump in glee. The reason for that was simple – sometimes, Morana did things in her recklessness that she knew she shouldn’t but still when she succeeded in doing them, she wanted to preen.

Right then was one of those reckless moments that made her want to preen.

She contained the urge. Barely.

The reason for both her stupidity and her bravery was five cars down, driving a huge black SUV, the vehicle so huge she was easily able to keep her eye on it from so far down the lane. Not a good vehicle for covert operations at all. But since it worked in her favor, she liked it.

After returning back to the penthouse from her old house with her stuff, Morana had locked herself in the guest room and gotten to work on the new set of codes, while also running a background check for the newspaper article some mysterious person had sent her from over thirty years ago. Tracking the said mysterious person had been impossible despite her numerous tries, telling her the one thing she’d needed to know about him or her – he or she knew computers. Really knew computers, for having evaded her.

And it made her wonder if they hadn’t been related to the original theft of the codes.

She’d mulled over a lot of possibilities while doing the work. Thankfully, the owner of the apartment hadn’t bothered or interrupted her at all. Not once in the thirty hours that she’d been working tirelessly on the codes – not for food, or drinks, or just plain staring.

Nothing.

And honestly, after getting the article, she was grateful. Because there were things going on, things she had no idea about. She needed some answers before getting in deeper than she already was. Her stray thoughts had been evident enough for him on the ride back to the apartment, and he’d withdrawn himself.

For nearly thirty hours, Morana had worked on the base for the new codes. She actually made a whole lot of progress, but it wasn’t that which had sent her down the path to recklessness. Oh no. It had been the article, or rather, the background search.

Trying to find something on the Alliance had resulted in absolutely nothing. But trying to find about the series of kidnappings in Tenebrae thirty years ago had yielded more results and gruesome truths than she’d been able to digest.

It had been a series of forty-five abductions (at least those known to the public). Abductions of young girls from their homes or parks that had spanned over a period of ten years. The missing girls were never found, not one. Since they had been abducted sporadically over the years, it had been hard for the police to gather much evidence.

Morana was smart enough to connect some dots, yet she had no clue how that was related to the fall of the Alliance. She didn’t even know if it had something to do with it. For all she knew, the person behind the article could’ve been a lunatic or just a prankster.

Yet, she knew in her gut it was connected.

She had since the moment she’d seen the article and the note. The note had led her to the last article reporting the disappearance of a baby Jane Doe.

Morana had tried, after catching up on some much-needed sleep, to try and talk to Amara about it. It had been the beautiful woman after all who’d given her the first clue. But the moment she’d brought up the kidnappings and the Alliance, Amara had stiffened and zipped her lips tight. Morana knew it was because of the loyalty she felt towards Tristan Caine, but it had only frustrated her. Dante would’ve been as helpful as a goat, and asking Tristan Caine alone would’ve either resulted in her pressed against the nearest flat surface or dead.

And she wanted answers. Not his fingers wreaking havoc on her, or his knife slicing her skin open.

Just answers.

Which was why, under dire circumstances, her brain had come up with a plan after exhausting every single option (short of alien abductions). The plan was simple in theory – find out something about Tristan Caine, something to hold over his head (because that man’s closet of skeletons could accommodate a small country, she was certain), and then blackmail him into giving her the truth.

Or die. But at least she’d go down knowing she’d tried her best to find out the truth.

In theory, it was a good plan. In execution, it was reckless.

That was exactly the reason she’d been ready and dressed inside the guest room this morning, waiting for him to leave so she could follow him out. Her car, her beautiful baby, had been waiting for her, purring under her as she’d started it. Happy to be back inside it, she’d told the guard at the gate that she needed some computer stuff. After he opened the gates, she had pressed down on the gas, shooting out into the road like a bullet, whizzing past the other cars to catch up with the one Tristan Caine had taken.

She’d been following him for almost an hour, at a very safe distance where she was sure he couldn’t spot her in the rearview mirror, occasionally admiring his driving skills. The man maneuvered the big SUV almost as well as he did that beast of a bike. For some reason she didn’t want to explore, she was partial to the bike.

The hard sun shone relentlessly down on the road as she followed him out of town. The city was slowly left behind for more and more countryside as she carefully kept her distance, knowing how observant he was.

He drove on the highway for almost ten minutes before turning onto a dirt road off to the left, disappearing behind the line of trees that shrouded the path.

Morana stopped her car, the sun glinting off the hood as the cool conditioned air brushed over the skin of her bare arms. Biting her lip, she waited for the SUV to get far enough away so she could follow. The fact that she couldn’t actually see the vehicle anymore made her jittery.

She slowly restarted the car, hovering on the edge of the turn, palms slightly sweaty because she had no idea what he would do if he discovered her tailing him. But it was too late to turn back. She was already on the reckless path, might as well follow through. Plus, answers.

The moment the other vehicle would’ve been nothing but a dot in the distance, Morana turned slowly onto the dirt road. Her car went over the bumps roughly as she drove through at snail’s speed, his choice of vehicle suddenly making sense to her. But that made her wonder –how did he know the areas around her city so well like a resident? Could it be something as simple as GPS?

She grit her teeth, following as inconspicuously as she could, her whole body jarring over the bad road and shushed her mind, storing random thoughts away for later.

Almost after five minutes of driving at a speed slower than her car was capable of, an old barn came into view. It stood tall and abandoned under the high sun, the woods around it concealing it from the view of the highway.

The SUV came to a stop outside it, and Morana quickly maneuvered her car behind some trees on the side of the path, hiding it completely from view behind the thick foliage. Taking her gun out from her bag, Morana opened the door noiselessly and got out, tucking the weapon at the small of her back in the waistband of her jeans, silently crouching down beside a tree to watch the scene.

She saw Tristan Caine’s muscled form fold itself out from the driver’s side, his eyes hidden behind dark shades as he removed the jacket of his suit and threw it in the car. Without missing a step, he shut the door, the fabric of the white shirt clinging to the muscles she knew were harder than they looked. He started walking towards the main entrance of the barn, disappearing inside.

Morana waited for a beat, adrenaline flooding her system as she quietly made her way to the building, still crouched low, looking around to constantly check she wasn’t being watched.

The door was partially open.

Without making a sound, she slipped inside carefully, blinking once, then twice, to let her eyes adjust to the dark as muffled voices reached her ears.

Eyeing a pillar right near the entrance, Morana slid behind it. Looking out, she was careful to stay low in the shadows while the sunlight filtered in through the high windows, the beams lighting the center of the empty space.

Tristan Caine stood in the center, four tall men surrounding him as he stood still, just watching them.

Gripping the pillar with her hands for support, she leaned slightly closer, the voices becoming clearer as they echoed in the cavernous space.

“Last I knew, Doug ran across the ocean without finishing his end of the bargain. Where is he now?” Tristan Caine asked calmly, in a quiet voice that made a shiver run down Morana’s spine. He spoke as though he wasn’t surrounded by dangerous looking thugs with weapons while he had absolutely none.

One of the men laughed, shaking his head. “Why do you want Doug?”

“That’s my business,” Tristan Caine replied in the same voice, his body still but alert, his eyes never moving from the men.

“You wakin’ up old skeletons, Caine,” the man she assumed was the leader of the group warned. “There’s a rumor running ‘bout you. ‘Bout ‘dem missing girls.”

Morana held her breath.

Tristan Caine sighed.

Sighed.

“You want to walk out of here, tell me where Doug is,” he informed them, slowly unbuttoning his shirt at the sleeves and rolling them up those forearms, the hint of his tattoo coming out from under it, a tattoo she had yet to see in detail.

The two men behind him exchanged looks, before suddenly pulling out their knives and throwing it right at his back.

Morana covered her mouth to stifle her gasp, her heart pounding as she watched in disbelief. Tristan Caine dropped down to his haunches without turning back even once, as though he’d been aware of every single movement the entire time, the knives missing him completely and falling down with a clatter.

Before the others could even react, he was on his feet, punching one guy right in the throat, breaking the bone with a loud snap, while kicking the other out simultaneously with his foot.

The other two came at him, one with a gun that he disarmed in seconds while breaking the guy’s wrist, and choking the other man with an arm wrapped around his neck.

The man passed out.

Taking the gun he’d divested the leader of, Tristan Caine shot him right on the knee caps, on both of them, the sound of the gun loud in the barn. Morana watched in silence, swallowing down her nerves, as he sat down on his haunches in front of the bleeding man, and tilted his head to the side casually, his hands draped lazily over his knees.

“Where’s Doug?” Tristan Caine asked again.

The man blubbered in pain, cursing everything to hell and back. “Don’t know, man.”

Tristan Caine pushed the gun into the wound and the man screamed so loudly Morana felt herself flinch.

“Don’t know, I swear,” the man blubbered. “Swear. Just know he visits the Saturn backroom every Saturday. That’s all I know. I swear.”

It was Saturday.

Tristan Caine considered him for a second, then nodded, dropping the gun beside the man and standing up.

Without a care in the world, he walked towards the door, a few steps from where Morana was hiding, her blood rushing to her head, looking at him in awe. It wasn’t just awed because of how quickly and smoothly he’d handled four big armed men without a weapon on himself, or at how casual he was about walking away from an injured man with a gun by his side.

She was in awe because watching him, right at that moment, she understood exactly who he was.

The Predator.

Always the hunter, never the hunted. He could not be hunted. He could not be tamed. He could not be destroyed. That kind of unbreakable aura was so, so tempting to her.

She should have been disgusted. She should have been exasperated. She should have been horrified. But she was enthralled because she could remember every single time she’d seen her father shoot a man; she could remember the way the blood spurted from the flesh, coating itself on his fingers as he’d tortured a man. Growing up the way she had, she’d seen men make others bleed, seen them covered in blood, seen them bathe in it.

To her, as horrifying as it was, it wasn’t the presence of blood that was odd.

The fact that Tristan Caine had extracted information from a man, made him bleed but hadn’t let that blood even touch him was odd.

Morana looked at his hands from her hiding place, looked at him as he made a phone call and spoke too quietly for her to hear, only one thought going through her head after witnessing the scene she had, in contrast to the countless others in her memory.

His hands – his big, rough hands that touched her so intimately – were clean.

 


 

Saturn.

She’d heard about the place of course, but never really seen it. Never wanted to see it.

It was a casino in East Shadow Port that was frequented by many mobsters – like a neutral ground for members of different families to hold a meeting in her father’s territory. As far as she knew, every city had one Saturn – and that casino served only one purpose, to let men meet without shedding blood in other’s territories. On the face of it, Saturn, like every other casino, was flashy – all the glitter an invitation for innocent tourists and civilians to spend their money and try their luck in.

After knowing where Tristan Caine would be headed, Morana had made a quick stop on the way at a boutique. Buying herself the first flashy dress she saw – a very silver, very short number that showed way more skin than she was comfortable showing. But she was pressed for time, so she changed in the dressing room and ran out to her car, stashing the silver heels on the seat beside her.

Pressing down on the accelerator to get to the casino quickly, she cursed her need to wear a dress to get inside the place because that meant no gun. No gun meant bad things. She even slept with a gun – at least when she wasn’t drifting off to sleep on strange couches.

Morana inhaled deeply, eyeing the dark SUV where it was parked innocently, and pulled her own car into the lot.

It was already getting darker outside, the sun fading away to give room to the moon, the air chilly as she crossed the lot to the main door, shivers racing down her spine, not entirely due to the cold.

The guard looked up as she approached, eyeing her in a way that was all too familiar, thanks to her father and his choice of dinner companions. It was exactly what she needed at the moment. Her spine straightened, her teeth gritting as she passed the guard by, wishing for the hundredth time she’d had her gun instead of the small butterfly knife in her bra.

Clenching her jaw, she cleared her mind of everything but getting to the back room, so she could spy in peace and entered the casino.

Bright lights and a plethora of colors assaulted her eyelids, the sound of music and laughter drifting about everywhere, along with the voices of the dealers and the slot machines pinging.

Morana stood still for a moment, fisting her hands beside her, taking it all in. She wasn’t used to such crowds, and her experiences with such a large number of people had not always been the best. No. She preferred her computer and her solitude, maybe a few people.

The dinner with Dante and Amara and Tristan Caine at the penthouse had been nice, a voice whispered inside her. Awkward but nice.

Morana hushed the voice, not willing to hear whatever it had to say, shaking off her musings. She started walking towards the back of the large but overcrowded area. The closer she got, the more clearly she could see a narrow corridor of some kind, with a single red curtain at the end.

Assuming it was the room the man had referred to, Morana looked around to make sure she wasn’t being watched, then made her way to the corridor. Once safely there, she stood at the curtain, trying to listen hard for any sounds, but heard nothing. Hesitating for a second, she pulled the curtain away slightly, peeking around it, and saw a simple wooden door with a keypad on the side.

Bingo.

Stepping into the small area, she pulled the curtain back in place, concealing her from everyone outside, and checked the keypad out. She knew her father’s security, having installed a lot of it herself. She knew if she cracked the lock, there won’t be any alarms of any kind. The keypad was complex, but not uncrackable, not for her at least.

Pulling her lip under her teeth, Morana concentrated completely on the lock, undoing it in a matter of seconds.

The minute the lock opened, a hand grabbed her roughly from the back.

Morana’s hand instantly went to the knife she’d hidden but a gun pressed into her ribs, stilling her.

She turned slowly, looking at an older man her height, his face cruel and harsh, especially under the dim lighting by the curtain.

“What are you doing here?” the man demanded, his hand shaking her in a way she knew would leave bruises.

Morana opened her mouth to make up an excuse when the man’s eyes fell on the open lock. Shit.

“Well, well,” he leered at her with interest. “You want to get inside, little girl? Let’s get inside.”

Shoving her hard through the door, he pressed the gun into her side, ordering her to move. Morana didn’t try to struggle. In a place like that, she knew it would be futile, that she’d have her own knife in her back before she’d even turned around properly. Being smart about this was the only way to make it through.

Fuck.

The dark room at the back of the casino was lit up with multi-colored lights that should have made it look cheap and flashy but had the opposite effect instead. Unlike the outside, there were no female servers in there. That was the first thing Morana noticed. No women at all and that told her something very important – whatever was going on here was highly private and highly important. It was only under those circumstances that women servers were refused at a gathering.

Okay, then.

Morana let her eyes take it all in. There was a huge round table in the center of the room, with dangerous-looking men around it. There was a single gun smack in the middle of the table, within the reach of each and every man.

And seated right across from the entrance, facing the door and every other person in the room, sat Tristan Caine.

His eyes flicked up towards her as the man dragged her in by the arm, and Morana’s heart pounded hard in her chest. Not just because she’d been discovered, but because she had no idea how he would react to this, to finding her here where he was doing whatever he was doing, which was something important by the looks of it.

His face didn’t flicker one bit.

No spark of recognition in those magnificent blue eyes, which seemed even bluer under the lights. No twitch in his jaw muscle at any attempt to control his expression. No movement of his body.

Nothing. At. All.

And yet she could feel the heaviness of his gaze upon every inch of her exposed skin. It went over the slip of her dress, over the hand strangling her upper arm.

God, how she admired that amount of self-control. How she envied it.

She kept her raging emotions completely off her face as well, easily enough, and tried to hide it in her eyes too, but wasn’t sure she managed completely. But no one knew her there, including him for all intents and purposes.

Standing still, she removed her eyes from him and scanned the room (something she should have and would have done first as soon as she entered an unknown environment before she’d met him, and she hated how deeply he was affecting her common sense). There were a total of six men, including him, all wearing expensive suits and groomed hair, a few smoking cigars, all in their forties or fifties perhaps.

He was the youngest man in the room, and yet he emanated the most dangerous air, even in his stillness. Or perhaps that was because she’d seen what his stillness held, what it’d done in the afternoon.

The man holding her arm jerked her forward, and she grit her teeth, the urge to punch the asshole in the nose making her fist clench. She swallowed it down.

“Found her lurking behind the door,” he informed the room in his rough voice. “Anyone know her?”

Everyone stayed silent.

Watching.

Morana stayed silent.

Waiting.

The man holding her arm turned to her, his face just a little above her. “What were you doing, girl?”

Morana stayed silent.

“What’s your fucking name?” the man spit out.

Morana glared up at his attempt to intimidate her, knowing she couldn’t let her real name be known, not in a crowd she didn’t know, in a casino in her father’s territory, and especially not when Tristan Caine stayed quiet. That told her enough for the moment.

“Stacy,” she finally said the first name that came to her mind.

The man raised a skeptic brow. “Stacy?”

“Summers,” she supplied sweetly.

“Well, Ms. Summers,” the man bit out, his voice harsh, his tone gleeful. “You see this room? Here’s where we play. But it’s not for money. For information.”

Ah. That made sense.

“There are only two ways you leave when you come to this room,” he grinned, his tobacco-stained teeth gleaming in the red light evilly. “You play and win, or you leave with a bullet in you.”

Dead or alive. Nice. Very mob-like.

Morana raised an eyebrow, looking pointedly at the gun on the table, her mind racing. She didn’t know what the game was but she did know that if she refused, the gun digging into her ribs would go off in a second, lodging the bullet very, very close to her heart. Plus these men were playing for information. If there was something she wanted more than freedom from this world, it was information.

“I’ll play,” she informed the man in a saccharine tone of voice, completely hiding her nerves.

She saw the disbelief flash on the man’s face momentarily before he pushed her into an empty chair, right in front of Tristan Caine.

Morana sat down, her back to the door. It was a vulnerable position. Anyone could enter and shoot her in the back.

But she looked up and saw Tristan Caine watching her, watching the door, watching everyone in the room without moving his eyes from her, and she felt her insides relax minutely. If there was one thing she knew for a fact, it was that this man would not let anyone else kill her. Her death was his, and only his. And looking at him, seeing not Tristan Caine but The Predator, she believed it with every fiber of her being. That was also the reason why she could not relax. Because she did not know this man. She’d met him once when he’d pushed her own knife against her throat back in Tenebrae. She’d met him when he’d threatened her on top of her car. Since then, she’d seen only terrifying glimpses of him.

But he was completely in his element now, any trace of the man who’d taken her riding on his bike, given her refuge in his territory, or cooked meals while she’d watched, completely gone.

She realized in that moment how much she’d come to know Tristan Caine without really knowing him. And how much she did not know this man leaning back in his chair, casual, composed, like a sleeping panther, crouching down, readying itself for the strike.

He would’ve realized by now how she’d ended up there. That made her stomach knot. She didn’t know how he would react, didn’t know if he would kill her right at this table or take her somewhere to torture her first.

Her heart hammered in her chest as she kept her eyes on him, her spine straight and every sense in her body on high alert. She was in a jungle of predators and the deadliest was watching her.

The slimy man, who’d dragged her in, loaded the gun at the center with one bullet and put it back on the table, within the reach of every arm, taking a step back.

That was the precise moment Morana realized the game.

There was one bullet.

Her stomach sank.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

She was dead. She knew she was dead. There was no way she was going to live this game through.

“The rules are simple, Ms. Summers,” the man informed her. “You pick up the gun, ask a question. The man does not answer, you pull the trigger. Empty shot, you ask another question. Man don’t answer, shoot again. But he can ask back, and you don’t answer, you eat the bullet.”

Morana knew of this game. She’d heard her father and his men when they’d played it at the house. She’d spied on the games when she’d been a little girl. There were six slots in the gun, and six questions to go between a pair. If she survived all empty shots, she could ask other questions. But so could the other man.

The older man beside Morana picked up the gun, pointing it at an even older man smoking a cigar, the back of his hand wrinkled with age.

“Where is the next shipment going?” the first man asked forcefully. Morana watched as Cigar Guy blew a thick swirl of smoke into the air, refusing to respond.

Morana watched the procession, a bead of sweat rolling down her spine.

Without further ado, the first guy pulled the trigger, but the shot went empty. Cigar Guy stubbed his cigar in a tray and pulled the gun towards himself.

“When did you start licking off Big-J’s shoes?”

The first man pursed his lips as Cigar Guy pointed the gun to his chest and shot.

The loud boom echoed in the room and Morana barely stopped herself from flinching, only years of hearing the sound allowing her to keep her composure as the first guy coughed blood and went limp, his eyes lifeless.

Oh god.

This game was like counting shots, instead of counting cards. She was good at the latter but she had no idea about the first. Looking across at Tristan Caine, she could tell by the easy way he sat that this wasn’t the first time he’d been to a game like this. Hell, she’d be surprised if anyone had actually questioned him. The fact that he sat there told her he’d never lost.

She didn’t want to play. But she knew there was no better time to get information out of Tristan Caine.

She eyed the gun sitting in the middle of the table, loaded again with a single bullet, her heart thudding, and shook herself.

Fuck, she wasn’t a coward.

Steeling herself, she leaned forward and gripped the gun in her hand, letting her palm familiarize itself with the weight, and pointed it at the man sitting across from her, completely still.

The room had gone dead silent – so silent that she could have heard a breath catch. It told her what she’d been suspecting was correct – no one pulled the gun on Tristan Caine. Yeah, well, no one dry humped him against the wall of their father’s house either.

Clearing her face of all emotions, knowing her voice would be steady even as her legs trembled under the table, she pinned him with her eyes and spoke quietly, not knowing if she’d get the answer. She didn’t want to think about pulling the trigger and killing him, and she definitely did not want to look into it, not for now.

“Tell me about the Alliance.”

His blue gaze pinned her to her chair, not a flicker of anything anywhere on his face as his body stayed relaxed, the suit of his jacket parted to reveal the shirt stretched taut across his chest. The collar was parted to reveal the strong line of his neck. Morana watched the vein on the neck, not seeing it flutter or give any indication of distress. It just lay against his skin, kissing his flesh, taunting her for all of his control.

“It’s been dead for twenty-two years,” he spoke quietly, his voice even, tone neutral, like he was discussing the weather with no gun pointed at him.

Morana grit her teeth, knowing she couldn’t shoot because he had answered, yet told her nothing she didn’t know.

Clever.

She placed the gun on the table just as he extended his hand and took it from her, his fingers brushing her, sending tingles up her entire arm.

She saw his eyes take in the bruise on her upper arm, where the brute had grabbed her roughly before he leaned back again. Keeping his hand on the gun, he let it stay on the table. Morana knew, having watched him in action, that he could have the gun up and shooting her dead before she could blink. He was deceptive that way. Dangerous.

“Why are you here?” he asked, his voice leaving no inflection of anything for her to read.

Morana felt a little smile on the inside. He wasn’t the only one who could play on words.

She raised her eyebrows, tilting her head to the side. “For information.”

She saw his one eyebrow notch up slightly, before he slid the gun across the table to her, his hands on the arms of the chair.

Morana picked up the gun, pointing it at him again, aware of all the eyes on them, all the men watching the game shrewdly.

“Why did it end?” she asked, her skin crawling from all the stares of the man, knowing their eyes were lingering on places she’d rather they not see.

Tristan Caine spoke, his eyes never straying from hers. “Mutual interests weren’t so mutual anymore.”

Seriously?

She hadn’t risked her neck for this. He needed to give her something.

Mulling over the next question in her head, her senses alert, she slid the gun across the table, where he stopped it with his hand, keeping a casual palm over it, that huge, huge palm covering the entire gun.

He considered her for a second in silence, before tilting his head to the side, his mouth curling deliberately in the imitation of a smirk even as his eyes remained blank.

“How do you like to be fucked, Ms. Summers?”

Her breath caught in her throat. Shae was aware of the lewd men in the room who started laughing around her. She felt her body flare with anger, the blood rushing through her system in a tornado as her chest tightened, her fists clenching under the table.

And through the haze of red, she saw something that suddenly gave her pause.

His eyes.

Those magnificent blue eyes – not laughing, not cruel, not even heated. Just completely blank.

His face was cruel. His eyes were not.

Clarity returned suddenly with a rush. He was goading her. Trying to throw her off her game. Deliberately doing the one thing she’d been pretty obvious about enraging her. She was handing him the gun to shoot her with.

Morana blinked, taking a small breath to cool herself and deliberately curled her lips up in imitation of his. She let her body remember the time his fingers had been inside her, his breath hot on her neck, his cock pressing into her back.

She gave him a heated look from under her lashes and murmured in a low, sexy, just-fucked bedroom voice.

“Like I’m going to feel it every time I walk.”

Something flared sharply in his eyes for a second before it was gone. She’d have missed it had she blinked. But she hadn’t blinked. She’d seen it, and she knew he’d be remembering the question he’d asked her against the wall of her father’s house. The question she hadn’t answered for him.

One of the older men with a wicked mustache whistled loudly before speaking, “Come home with me tonight, baby. You’ll feel it for the next month.”

Everyone chuckled. Fucking bastard. She was fucking another asshole at the moment, so her schedule was full. Tristan Caine didn’t react to any of the men, just slid the gun back to her.

Six shots. Six questions. This was her last one.

Morana thought the question over for a minute, before wording it carefully.

“What happened to break the Alliance?”

She should have known he wouldn’t answer if he didn’t want to.

“The two parties disagreed on matters but didn’t want a war. Alliance ended.”

Morana exhaled, closing her eyes for a second. She’d lost her chance. She’d lost the one chance she’d had to make him answer some questions, and exposed her hand in the process.

She slid the gun back to him when suddenly, her heart started pounding.

It was the last shot. The last question. And something told her he wouldn’t waste it.

Morana felt her heart hammer in her chest as, for the first time, he picked up the gun, leaning back in his chair, completely relaxed yet ready to launch into action in a second, the barrel pointed at her chest.

His intention to shoot her in the heart became clear if she gave an answer he didn’t like.

Her hands shook as she held them together, keeping her jaw locked tight, her gaze trapped in his blue one.

“What do you know about my history and Alliance?”

Morana felt her throat lock.

She knew.

Oh lord, she knew.

She knew his sister had been one of the girls gone missing.

She’d figured it out pretty quickly into her research, knowing it had been twenty-two years ago, which would’ve made him eight. What she didn’t know, however, was what that had to do with the Alliance.

But as she looked at him, looked at the men around the room – all older than him, all afraid of him, respectful of him, of The Predator in a world where reputation mattered more than lives, none of them knowing a thing about Tristan Caine – Morana’s heart clenched.

He’d shared the memory of his sister with her on that rainy night. He’d volunteered that memory, on a lonely night, just a lone man with a lone woman, giving her a truce, a respite for a few hours.

He had the gun pointed at her heart, and his eyes remained hard and cold, but Morana knew she could not die knowing she’d betrayed the one beautiful, powerful memory she had. He’d given her something incredible that night, something that her soul was so immensely grateful for, and she could not rape that for her own means, could not repay that small truce from him despite his hatred, with this betrayal.

He’d cracked a small light for her. She couldn’t suffocate it.

Heart clenching with fear, the decision made, Morana held her breath and closed her eyes, remaining silent.

Silence.

There was utter silence.

No sound except her own blood rushing in her ears. Nothing except darkness behind her shut eyelids.

She was aware of every single man in the room holding his breath as they waited for the bullet to pierce her heart, aware of the blood throbbing in her body. She realized in that moment of facing death – the very death she’d been contemplating mere days ago – that she didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to die, not when she’d started living for the first time in her life, because of the very man holding the gun at her chest.

Her heart beat in staccato, taking as many beats as it could before it was forced to stop, her shaking hands clenching the arms of the chair, sweat rolling down the line of her spine.

She waited a breath.

Two.

Another.

And suddenly, the loud bang made her flinch –

Her heart stopped –

– right before her eyes flew open on a loud intake of breath. Her teeth grit in pain as fire burned down the length of her arm, flames licking along her flesh as agony seared through her.

Morana looked down at the blood soaking the fabric of her dress, not over her breasts, where she’d expected to see it, but on the outside of her arm.

She’d been shot on the outside of her arm.

Right on the where the bruise had been.

The bullet wasn’t even in her arm.

It was just a graze.

He’d not killed her. Not even injured her severely.

Her eyes flew to his, to find something completely unreadable in his eyes, his gaze heavy and intense with something she had no name for. She recognized the fury, the hatred, but there was something else, something so live, something she didn’t recognize. It pulsed between them, making her realize how utterly controlled he had been, and suddenly, the dam had burst.

His eyes held her ensnared, the blue ferocious in that foreignness. Her breathing stuttered, eyes on his, disbelief washing over her because he’d been pointing to her chest. The rule of the game was to answer or die. And yet, she was merely grazed on her bruised arm.

One of the men would kill her because they played by the rules. She couldn’t be allowed to leave alive after everything.

Yet she knew, she would. Because he’d decided she would live. Because he had shot her, and the men couldn’t argue with that.

Their eyes remained locked over the table, his hand holding the gun loosely and hers pressed down on her bleeding upper arm, her stomach in knots.

She should have felt angry. She should have felt betrayed. She should have felt hatred.

She should have felt relieved to be alive. She should have felt shaky at the close call. She should have felt uncertain about what was to come.

She should have, could have felt so many things…

But as she sat there, watching him, after she hadn’t spoken a word in this jungle of hunters to make him seem less than deadly, she was surprised at herself. Morana didn’t feel a single one of those emotions.

It almost made her want to smile.

Almost.

She should have felt a lot of things, yet what she felt was a change.

Something changed in the moment she chose to kept silent instead of speaking, forfeiting her life, and he chose to shoot her in the arm instead of her heart, sparing her life. Something between them changed, just like it had on that night in the dark, this time in the middle of a crowd of lethal men.

She felt the connection between them that she’d tried to deny so very hard, felt it roll itself round and round, deepening, thickening, choking every shadow it encountered in her mind, strangling every bit of uncertainty.

She’d chosen to not betray him to these people. He’d chosen not to let her die.

She didn’t want to think about it. Didn’t want to think of the implications. Didn’t want to acknowledge their connection that just kept folding itself over and over between them, something fundamental had shifted with her both their decisions.

Because she realized, she wasn’t the only one reckless between them.

Things, while the same, had changed. Inadvertently, tonight, they’d both decided.


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