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The Predator: Chapter 16

Trembling

She went to bed later that night, after taking care of her wound, lying down silently, trying to understand what had happened, when her phone chimed.

It was a message, from an unknown number, with a multimedia file attached. Morana looked at it, her heart picking up as she sat up in the bed and saw the number.

It was the same number which had sent her the article; the same number she’d been unable to track.

Taking a deep breath, uncertain of what she would find next, Morana tapped on the multimedia icon, to find a folder. Squinting, Morana looked at the small fonts, reading the name of the folder.

Luna Evelyn Caine.

Her breath caught. With shaky hands, Morana clicked on the icon and found out why he was bleeding.

 


 

She couldn’t stop trembling.

Something had moved inside her again, shifted, been replaced, been awakened and deadened. Turmoil coiled in her belly like a hungry beast salivating for food.

Morana closed the bedroom door behind her and stepped out into the pale morning light that flooded the living room. Her eyes looking out the tall windows, she took in the sun that was barely out in the sky. The clouds were roiling along the horizon, headed towards the city, giving the skyline a majestic albeit morose backdrop as the wind whipped the sea into currents.

It was barely four in the morning, and she hadn’t slept a wink the entire night. Hadn’t even tried to.

And it wasn’t because of her arm.

It was because of what she’d discovered.

Morana didn’t know who the anonymous man or woman was, or if it was even a single person rather than a group, who had sent her the article a few hours ago, but they were resourceful, finding things she hadn’t even had an inkling of, from sources she hadn’t known existed.

Personal things.

Things that had twisted her stomach into knots and made bile rise in her throat.

According to the information in the folder titled ‘Luna Evelyn Caine’, Morana had found out, to an extent, truths that made a whole lot of sense but she had never known about.

She’d already known about the girls who’d gone missing never to be found again in Tenebrae and nearby areas about twenty years ago. She’d also known that Tristan Caine’s baby sister had been one of the missing girls.

What she hadn’t known were the speculations about the kidnappings. How the authorities had suspected one, or maybe two people working together, with no clue as to what purpose. But the anonymous source had given her enough evidence – which she’d pored over for hours – to make her realize it had been much bigger than one or two men. It had been the work of a group of very strong, very powerful people. What for, she didn’t know. What could young, little girls ever get anyone if not ransom?

There had been enough lewd details to make her want to be sick, but still, it hadn’t been that which had brought her to the edge.

It had been about her.

The fact that she’d been one of the little girls too.

She’d seen her own photograph staring back at her, her chubby cheeks wet with tears as she sat along with two other little girls.

One of whom had been Luna Caine. Dark red cap of hair, just a little older than her, rosy mouth, bright green eyes sparkling with tears of her own. There had been another toddler in the picture between them.

Three girls in the picture.

Twenty-five girls gone missing.

And Morana was the only one to have been found.

How? Why? Why only her and nobody else?

Legs shaking, Morana collapsed onto the stool in the kitchen, staring out the window, trying to remember something, anything from years ago.

She couldn’t.

She’d tried for hours to think back, to recall even the tiniest detail of being abducted, but she’d come up absolutely empty with only a mild headache to answer for it. Was it because she’d been barely three years old at the time, or because she’d buried the memory like people did sometimes? Could she even do that?

And was that why Tristan Caine hated her so much? Because she’d come back while his sister hadn’t? She’d lived life while his sister probably hadn’t? Was that why?

Her hands were trembling. They’d been trembling all night and no matter what she tried, it just wouldn’t stop.

God, she was breaking down.

Why had her father never told her about it? When it had been a part of serial disappearances? Why hadn’t anyone told her? The Alliance had mysteriously ended around the same time and someone had sent her this?

Her head hurt.

The sudden sound of a throat clearing made her jump in her seat. She turned around quickly to see Tristan Caine standing at the foot of the stairs, without a shirt but in unbuttoned jeans, his hair sticking up like he’d run his fingers through it repeatedly, his eyes slightly red.

Either he’d been crying or he hadn’t slept either.

She’d bet her degree it wasn’t the former.

His face was his usual neutral, controlled mask as he took her in, his eyes lingering for a split second on her shaking hands before coming back to hers.

God, she couldn’t do this. This intense eye contact game they played. She just couldn’t do it right now, not with the way she was barely keeping down the scream that had been building in her throat. It wasn’t a scream of fear, or devastation, or desperation. Not even frustration, truly. It was trapped somewhere between them all, bouncing from one to the other while they laughed in her face.

She turned back to face the window.

“Did I hurt you?”

The question, asked in that low, rough tone, caught her off guard.

Keeping her back towards him, her hands knotted together in her lap, Morana scoffed deliberately. “Why do you care?”

Silence.

He still stood exactly where he’d been. She was so completely attuned to his movements that her body tensed with awareness, spine straightening and shoulders rolling back even as she kept her gaze at the skyline.

“Did I hurt you?”

Low. Rough. Again.

“You did shoot me,” Morana pointed out with a lightness she didn’t feel.

Before she could take another breath, he was suddenly beside her, his fingers on her chin, the calloused edges pressing into her, his hold firm but gentle as he turned her to face him.

Morana blinked up at his sleep-deprived, yet magnificent blue eyes boring down into her, his warm musky scent even more prominent, not a hint of his cologne anywhere, his Adam’s apple bobbing once as he swallowed in her peripheral vision.

“Did I hurt you?” he asked again, his voice barely a whisper, his breath warm on her face as his eyes scanned hers.

She knew what he was asking. He’d not hurt her physically in the shower, he knew that too. It was another kind of hurt he wanted to know about, another kind of hurt which frankly, she hadn’t even considered in the light of the information that had flooded her.

So, she thought about it as he waited for her answer. She thought about how she’d felt when he’d seen her naked, how she’d felt when she’d pulled him closer, how she’d felt when he’d asserted the intensity that was as much a part of him as that limb holding her.

How had she felt? He’d been surprisingly possessive and unsurprisingly angry. In the light of the day, she could understand why. Not to say she agreed with a lot of shit that he’d said, but she could understand the anger. She felt for that pain.

But was she hurt?

She was thicker than that.

“No,” she told him quietly.

He waited a beat, blinking once before pulling back, dropping his hand and stepping towards the stairs without another word.

Morana looked at his retreating back, the beast in her chest clawing tighter and tighter until she thought it would choke her, and before she could even think about it, the words left her mouth.

“I know about your sister.”

Morana watched as he ground to a stop suddenly. He stilled, his arm on the railing, the muscles on his scarred back bunching, one lone muscle by one as he completely coiled his body, the action of his naked skin visible to her eyes. Her words were louder than bullets fired between them, confirming his worst suspicions and revealing her hand.

She didn’t know if she should have told him or not. She hadn’t even thought before speaking.

God, she was tired of thinking, of trying to decode every damn thing.

She swallowed, her bravado making her slowly get to her feet, her need to know, to finally know if that was why he hated her so acute it tightened every air cavity in her chest to the point of pain.

Because if he hated her for being alive when his sister most likely wasn’t, she really didn’t see any way forward for them. And looking at his back, at the multitude of scars littering his flesh like a lover’s kisses, after witnessing that moment of utter pain and agony bleeding from him not hours earlier, she wanted a way forward.

She clenched her shaking hands into fists.

“I know she was taken and never came back.”

He didn’t move.

Didn’t even breathe.

His back remained completely motionless.

Her heart clenched for him, for the pain he must have felt, still evidently felt. She remembered the softness with which he’d spoken of his sister.

Biting her lip, she took a step closer to him. “I know I was taken too.”

Another step.

“But I came back.”

Stillness.

“And she didn’t.”

Such stillness.

The air heavy between them, like it had been chafed too much, rubbed raw and had swollen in pain.

Morana closed the distance between them on shaky legs, until she stood beside him, and looked up into his face, placing a hand on his scruffy chin like he’d held hers just moments ago. He turned his face towards her, a clean slate wiped of all expression, his eyes vacant, dead, just looking out at her.

“That’s what you hate me for, don’t you?” she whispered in the air between them, her voice wavering slightly. “Because I was found and she wasn’t?”

His lips trembled for a split second before they were pursed again, a movement so minute, so quick, so real she’d have missed it had she not been standing so close to him.

His jaw clenched.

Morana let his chin go and looked down. “How can you even stand to look at me? God, how can you let me stay here when you hate me for…”

“I never hated you for that.”

Barely a whisper but the words reached her.

Her eyes swung up to his. His were still devoid of all emotions.

But she knew he was telling the truth. A man like him, who’d made his hatred so honest since the beginning wouldn’t lie about it when blatantly questioned.

“Then what do you hate me for?” she asked softly, all her speculations, confusions, crashing a hard death.

The light in the room dimmed even more, shadows elongating as the clouds took over the sky.

He broke their gaze, looking away.

She waited for him to take a few breaths, waited for him to look back at her, waited for him to speak. He didn’t.

Anger flooded her veins with surprising speed.

Grabbing a hold of his bicep, she shook it, tried to shake it, gritting her teeth. “Tell me, damn you! Tell me why you want to kill me. Tell me why you didn’t when you could have. Tell me why you’re so bothered with hurting me when you promise me my death with every word that you speak. Tell me!

She was yelling by the end of her tirade, shaking his arm, her anger, her confusion, her frustration, her desire, all warring in a way she’d been so unfamiliar with before she’d met him, a way that had become her bedside companion now. She’d been abducted along with twenty-five other little girls, including his sister, and nobody had returned but her. She’d never been told this, never even had any indications, but clearly, it had been important enough for the anonymous person to tell her. And even though it could have been an understandable reason for his hatred, it wasn’t a reason at all.

What the fuck was then?

His blue eyes speared hers, a spark of anger in them giving them sudden life. His free hand came up to take a hold of her wrist as he pulled her hand away from that taut bicep, pulling her closer until suddenly they were nose to nose, his chest rising and falling as rapidly as hers, her heart pounding with a vengeance as she glared at him.

“I don’t owe you a fucking thing,” he growled inches away from her mouth. “I do what I do. Only I need to know the reasons for it.”

Morana growled back. “Not when they affect other people, which in this case happens to be me.”

“Not my problem.”

She narrowed her eyes. “It is if I start believing you’re just full of shit and hot air. You’re losing your touch, Predator.

His lips curled slightly at her sneering tone even as his eyes bore down upon hers with unwavering intensity, without a hint of amusement.

“You forget I haven’t really touched you at all.”

Her breath hitched even as she understood his deflection. He released her hand and climbed the stairs three at a time, his taut ass flexing as Morana watched him disappear back inside his room, once again leaving her without any answer at all.

Morana closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and walked to her room, deciding, once and for all, that she was going to get some answers from somewhere no matter what she had to do. She needed those answers to keep hold on her sanity, which she could feel slipping away with multiple epiphanies sinking into her – the realization that she’d been a part of something so horrific at such a young age; the realization that only she had been lucky enough to have been recovered; the realization that everyone had deliberately kept her in the dark for some reason.

Her bed was a mess from tossing and turning all night. Quickly making the bed, she dressed in dark jeans and the first top she could find from Amara’s collection. Putting on flats, she knotted her hair on top, adjusted her glasses, grabbed her keys and her gun, and walked out.

Tristan Caine was in the kitchen, surprisingly dressed and freshly showered from the looks of it. He didn’t look up at her as he whipped eggs efficiently, his wrist moving at a quick speed, and she didn’t stop on the way to the elevator, not sparing him another glance.

“Going somewhere?”

Duh, asshole.

She stayed silent and kept walking, her keys digging into her palm.

“The guards won’t let you out until I say so.”

The words stopped her in her tracks. Rage flooded her system as she whirled around to skewer him.

“I didn’t get the memo that I’d been promoted to a prisoner,” she spoke in a cool voice, completely at odds with the riot inside her.

His face remained blank as he placed the bowl on the counter and leaned against it, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I’ve treated you as a guest here, Ms. Vitalio, we both know that,” he pointed out evenly. “You’ve had the access to your beloved car. You’ve had the freedom to come and go as you please. But yesterday, you changed the equation. You followed me the entire day, putting not only your life on the line but mine. Not just once, but repeatedly.”

He pushed away from the counter and started walking towards her slowly, his arms still crossed and face hard, the shadows playing on his face, the longer scruff and stiff look making him seem even more intimidating than he was.

“Do I need to remind you we’re on the cusp of war here?” he grit out, blue eyes sparking fire. “Just because your father hasn’t retaliated yet, don’t think he wouldn’t. I insulted him on his territory, not only by hitting him but by letting you stay here. That’s not considering your wild codes out there that need to be found.”

He wasn’t wrong. But Morana didn’t utter a word, letting him speak as he stopped a few feet from her.

“So yes, I’ve explicitly told the guards not to let you out unless I say so, because if your pretty neck is wrung before the codes are found, all of us are screwed.”

Her heart stopped for a second before picking up pace again. “Is that why you didn’t kill me back at the casino? Why you haven’t killed me yet?”

He tilted his face to the side, expression blank. “Of course.”

A pinch of hurt curled inside her heart but she shoved it away, knowing this man had more layers to peel than a stubborn onion, and she couldn’t see them with teary eyes. She narrowed her gaze and focused on his eyes, seeing them without her own emotions clouding them.

Her lips curled as she shook her head, turning away to leave before he could say anything, pressing the button for the elevator. “Tell the guards to let me through. Otherwise either they’ll get hurt, or I will. Dealer’s choice.”

The doors swished open and she stepped inside, pushing the button for the parking and finally looking at him again.

“Oh, and keep telling yourself that’s why you didn’t kill me, Mr. Caine. You might get some decent sleep.”

His eyes flared and the doors closed, shutting him out, the mirrored panels reflecting her own form.

Morana looked back at herself, at the smug smile on her face, and realized, that after a few minutes with the infuriating man, her hands had finally stopped shaking.

 


 

She was in the graveyard, lying on the grass, looking up at the cloudy sky.

This was her place.

Morana had discovered this small little graveyard right beside the airport by accident a few years ago. It was closed off from the runway by a huge fenced wall. When she’d stumbled upon this place while driving around, she’d become addicted to the peace and quiet immediately. The ground had shaken beneath her feet and she’d looked up, to see the belly of a monstrous plane just a few feet above her head, taking flight. Something so, so much bigger than she had made her feel so small beneath it. That had been the moment she’d been hooked.

She’d come to this place countless times since then. Just to lie back on the grass and see plane after plane leave every five minutes, the noise rumbling everywhere in her body, the seclusion of this place making it just hers. This was where she thought the best. She’d made a lot of brave decisions for herself here, and in the insanity of the past few weeks, she’d forgotten how much she missed this place.

Lying on the soft grass now, Morana felt the tell-tale rumble in the ground and smiled up at the cloudy sky, folding her hands on her stomach as the rumble grew and grew until her entire body shook with the ground. With a roar, the nose of the plane came into view, followed by its underbelly, so vast and so close above her she could feel it in every pore, the noise deafening.

She kept her eyes glued to the plane as it soared higher and vanished from sight, leaving behind utter silence.

Making her feel alive and then leaving her with the dead. Quite literally.

Morana chuckled at her own thoughts, before sobering, sorting out the mess her head had been for days, dividing and categorizing her problems into three neat stacks.

The first stack was the codes. Although she’d almost written the sister program that would render those codes useless, it wasn’t that which worried her. Someone had hired Jackson, while pretending to be Tristan Caine, to woo and get her to make the codes, framing the other man without his knowledge. Had she not confronted him at his party, he probably wouldn’t have found out until it was too late.

But who, and why? The person clearly knew Tristan Caine enough to want to frame him but how did they know about her? The only people who knew about her expertise were people who were into programming, and not many of them were found in the mob. Except within the span of a few weeks, she’d encountered two such people. Clearly, her anonymous source was an expert in finding things digitally, things even she hadn’t been able to find.

Could the two be related? And what did it all have to do with the Alliance?

The second stack was Tristan Caine. Even as everything inside her shied away from wanting to take a close look at whatever she felt about him, she forced herself to do exactly that. Denial wouldn’t do her any good.

She desired him, she’d admitted that much. Not just a quick fuck against a wall as they didn’t look at each other. She wanted him to stroke her back like he’d done last night for a few seconds. She wanted, for once, for him to hold her breasts and not just make her wet with his fingers. She wanted to be able to caress that jaw and feel the scruff rasp against her palm. She wanted to feel the scars under her tongue. She wanted to trace those tattoos with her fingers. She’d desired him before and still did. Yet, her hunger was not appeased, not satiated, and it had been dumb of her to think one time would have been enough.

She felt alive with him, she knew that too. But despite the casino incident, and last night when emotions had been running too close to the surface for both of them, and this morning when he’d needed to know if he’d hurt her, Morana, for some reason, felt safe with him. It was a stupid thing to feel with a man like him, but she couldn’t understand it.

The moment she’d entered that casino and seen him, something in her had relaxed. The moment she’d left her father and come to him, something in her had collapsed. The moment she’d let him see her naked, something in her had snapped. He’d seen her vulnerable multiple times and nuzzled her jugular instead of ripping it out. He’d seen her feisty so many times and had fed her fire instead of dousing it. He’d seen her as her and despite everything, he’d not exploited that, like her own father had done so many times.

She couldn’t ignore these things. She knew he was a complex man, a harder puzzle than anything she’d ever encountered. She knew he hated her, and if it wasn’t for being alive in place of his sister, it had to be much, much worse. Something he refused to talk to her about. Why?

And, if it was worse, where did she even go forward with him? And yes, she wanted to. She didn’t know where, but somewhere.

Another vibration startled her, but she realized it was too soon and too small to be another plane. It was her phone.

Morana pulled it out of her pocket and looked at the screen.

The third stack was calling her.

Daddy dearest.

Morana stared at the screen, her hand hovering over the green icon.

She hadn’t spoken to him since that night. Any illusions she’d ever carried had been shattered not just by her fall, but by him using her as bait, never once asking for her. Now that she’d found out about the kidnappings, her own and others, she knew she had to talk to him.

And yet her thumb couldn’t come down.

The screen died.

Another plane went.

The screen lit up again.

Morana took a deep breath and swallowed, making sure her voice remained completely even, and pressed on the green icon, putting the phone to her ear.

“You’ve settled quite well as his whore, Morana,” her father’s voice came out, cold. “I had such plans for you.”

Morana grit her teeth but spoke with a deliberate smirk. “I’m sure you haven’t called to get the details of my scandalous sex life, father. Oh, I forgot to ask, how’s your nose?”

Silence.

Score 1.

“I know you’re out of the building alone,” the man informed her. Ah, the ever-faithful spies. Of course, he had people watching.

“And?”

“You’ve been branded a traitor, Morana. This territory will no longer be safe for you. You’ll be hunted and brought to me for justice, if not killed immediately.”

Morana shook her head. “You care too much about your reputation to do that to me, father. Your name is everything to you. A daughter sleeping with the enemy? Oh, you’d bury the news so deep into the ground it’d never see the light of the day.”

She paused, taking a deep breath. “Isn’t that why the news about my kidnapping was never known?”

Morana heard her father’s breaths catch.

He waited a beat, then ground out, his accent more pronounced. “That fucking vermin! He was a good for nothing brat then and he’s a good for nothing brat now. What did the shit tell you?”

Interesting.

Morana blinked up at the sky, seeing the clouds rolling in overhead, the wind picking up pace.

“What do you think?” Morana bluffed, keeping her voice controlled, seeing what else she could glean. “I know, father.”

She heard his breaths on the phone, deep breaths, clearly trying to control his agitation.

“You know everything?”

“Yes.”

“Then, you’re right,” he spoke finally, his voice so cold it sent a shiver down her spine. “I do care about my reputation. I have worked too hard for too many years to let this get in the way.”

Morana frowned, trying to piece together everything her father said.

“You’ve known for a while now, haven’t you?”

She continued to bluff. “Yes, I have.”

“You should have died,” her father repeated the words from the other night. “At least I wouldn’t have had to deal with you all these years.”

Morana stayed quiet, letting him talk.

“You’ve spurned me, shamed me, and now you know the truth about us. You’ve not only signed your death warrant, Morana. You’ve signed his too.”

Her mind spun, not just because of the severity of the threats but because of what he’d said.

‘Truth about us?’

To whom was her father referring?

“Starting now, you’re dead to me.”

The line went dead.

Morana looked at the phone, another hard shiver wracking her body, goosebumps erupting all over her arms.

She looked around, seeing the secluded area for the first time as not the safe haven it was but the perfect spot to dispose of a dead body. Her senses went tingling with dread.

Urgency hit her suddenly.

She needed to get back to the penthouse, to safety. Now.

Pocketing her phone, she stood up quickly and started walking towards the gate of the graveyard a good distance away, beyond which her car stood waiting for her. Hastening her steps, she kept her senses vigilant, looking around and over her shoulders, seeing nothing but graves and grass and trees at the far edge on this side of the fence in the utter quiet.

The wrought iron gate came into view, and Morana could see her car a little beyond that.

Releasing a sigh of relief, she sped up to a jog and exited the graveyard.

It was perhaps because she was on alert for anything out of place combined with the absolute silence that she heard the little beep she would have otherwise missed as she neared her car.

The sound came again, like a whip cracking on the ground before meeting flesh, making her heart pound as blood rushed through her body in a tsunami.

Stopping exactly where she was, Morana dropped to her knees and leaned over to look under her car, her hands scraping in the dirt and her body ready to jump and run if what she suspected was true.

It was true.

A small black box was hooked under her car, a red dot of a light blinking on it with every alternate beep. Since there was no timer, it meant that it was controlled remotely. Which meant someone had been watching and waiting for her to come near enough.

Heart in her throat, adrenaline flushing her system, Morana pushed back and stood, turning and running back towards the graveyard without wasting a breath. Blood pounded in her ears and the muscles in her calf burned. Little pebbles got under the sole of her flats but she continued to run, feeling a stitch on her side, just as the ground beneath her feet started to rumble.

Oh god, not now.

With a burst of speed, not looking back even once, just as a plane roared into the sky, a hot gust of wind blew into her from behind, forcing her onto the ground. Heat seared her back as she fell on her front, the breath knocked out of her, the exposed skin at her neck and arms singed as the fabric tore at her back.

Panting, Morana rolled onto her back, wincing with pain as she put pressure on the sensitive skin, the wound in her arm bleeding again, dirt coating her skin, as she looked back at the gate.

A sob broke from her chest.

Her car.

Burning in flames.

No, god, no.

The sight seared itself into her vision, the tall flames of orange licking the red of her car, sucking its life away, turning it into charred black right before her eyes.

Tears escaped her eyes as she looked at the one friend, the one constant she’d had for so long, be brutally murdered, pain and rage suffusing her with every passing moment. That car had been her freedom, her escape, her companion. That car had held her when she’d shouted songs at the top of her lungs and when she’d broken down in tears, delivering her to safety.

That car.

Her car.

Morana looked at it, sobs bursting from her chest. Her father had done this. His men had done this.

For one long minute, she stared at the burning mass of metal, mourned it for one long minute. Then, she buried the pain deep inside and let the rage take over.

The men had to be nearby, to make sure she was dead, and to get the proof for their boss.

Standing up, she wiped under her eyes and pulled out her gun from her waistband.

They wanted death? She’d deliver it on a fucking platter with blood on the side.

Wiping the remnants of all tears, Morana let the heat infuse her, and crouched down, creeping slowly towards the road from the inside, clearing her mind of all thoughts, all pain in her body ignored.

After a few minutes of nearing the edge, the black SUV her father’s goons used came into view, parked a good distance away.

Morana stayed crouched low, recognizing them.

Two men. Only two men sent to take care of his daughter. But two of his closest men.

Too bad.

The men stood beside the vehicle, their gazes on the burning wreck where they thought she would be.

She needed to take them out, make an example of her own, and send her father a clear message. Nobody messed with hers and got away with it unscathed. No one.

She knew she couldn’t shoot one without alerting the other, and her body couldn’t handle a fight injured if she was spotted. It needed to be quick, efficient. Narrowing her eyes, Morana pointed the gun at the vehicle, at the gas tank to be specific, getting a clear shot from her vantage.

Her hand shook slightly, but she steadied it.

Set an example. Tell Daddy Dearest to fuck off.

Taking a deep breath, Morana closed one eye, took her aim, and fired.

The SUV was intact one second, blown up the next. It wasn’t like in the movies at all. It was done and over within seconds. She watched even as her arm recoiled as the same flames licked the vehicle and her father’s men along with it. She dropped down on her ass, exhausted, on the cold ground, feeling no satisfaction, nothing but emptiness.

She sat there, hidden from view, behind two gravestones, wanting nothing more than to go to the penthouse and sleep. But she couldn’t go. Not without a car and not when her father’s other goons could very well be nearby.

With shaking hands, she put the gun down and pulled out her phone, tears streaming down her face again.

She knew she could call him. She somehow also knew that he would come.

She wouldn’t. She was a mess, again, and she couldn’t make it a habit to let him help her. But then, who could she call? She had no one.

Opening up her contacts, Morana stared at the third number right near the top, a number she’d acquired just recently, and swallowed, hitting call before she could think about it.

She pressed the phone to her ear, pulling her knees up towards her chest and stared unseeingly at the ground as it rang.

She bit her lip, deciding to hang up just as the call was answered and a soft, raspy voice came over.

“Morana?”

She could hear the surprise, the worry, the concern wrapped in that one little word, and it tipped her over.

“Amara,” Morana spoke, her voice quivering. “I didn’t know who else to call.”

“I’m glad you called but are you alright?” Amara’s soft tones were rife with concern.

“Not really.”

“Are you hurt? Tell me where you are, I’ll be right over.”

“I’m… I’m okay,” Morana hiccupped. “I need your help. And I’d really appreciate if you didn’t tell anyone about this, please.”

“Don’t worry about that,” came the immediate reply. “Just tell me what I can do.”

“I need you to pick me up.”

Morana told her the place, told her to be careful and make sure she wasn’t followed.

“I’m ten minutes away. Sit tight, okay?”

Morana nodded, her lips trembling. “Thank you.”

“Anytime, Morana.”

She put the phone down and away beside the gun and leaned back against the gravestone. Her back hurt, her skin sensitive from the blast but thankfully not burned. She stared up at the sky.

So, that was that.

Her car was dead. And she’d murdered someone, two someones, for the first time.

She’d never thought she had it in her. Even though she’d never balked at hurting guys trying to hurt her. She’d never given much thought to if and when she would murder people, not in protection but in hatred, in vengeance. She had. She had retaliated, and she felt no remorse. She felt nothing. Not right now. Maybe she would later, but at the moment, she was nothing but one giant ball of empty.

At least the stack with her father had crashed and burned. She knew exactly what he wanted to do, knew he would try to do it by any means, and she needed to be prepared.

Her phone buzzed with an incoming text.

Morana tilted her neck to see it flash on the screen.

 

Tristan Caine: Tsk tsk, wildcat. You should have at least allowed me another punch at your father before you signed on my death warrant. Now I have to take the liberty myself. Where’s the fun in that?

 

Morana read the text, a laugh bubbling out of her as she hit reply. How did he even know? Had her father done something? Besides blowing a bomb with the intent of killing her, that is?

 

Me: Damn. I know right? I asked him how his nose was, though.

 

Tristan Caine: That must have been colorful.

 

Me: He used a lot of cuss words for you.

 

Tristan Caine: No gentleman, him.

 

Morana smiled, shaking her head.

 

Me: You’re one to talk, mister.

 

Tristan Caine: I told you I wasn’t a gentleman that very first night.

 

Morana remembered that conversation that first night in Tenebrae, at the mansion, with her knives at her throat and him pressed into her front.

 

Me: Yes, you did. It’s a good thing I’m not into gentlemen. Gentlemen can’t handle me.

 

Tristan Caine: I don’t think anyone can handle you. Not if you don’t want to be handled.

 

Morana read the message, her heart thundering. That was probably the nicest, most empowering thing anyone had ever said to her – that she was strong enough to handle herself, that she chose who she allowed to handle her. It was especially surprising, considering the kind of world she’d lived in.

 

Me: Funny, I was going to say the same thing about you.

 

Amara’s incoming call filled the screen. Morana picked up and quickly directed her towards her location. Another message waited for her, a message that sobered her up completely, bringing back what she’d managed to forget for a few blissful seconds.

 

Tristan Caine: I think my guards are afraid of you.

 

She read the message once. Twice. It was written in the same teasing tone that she couldn’t imagine talking to him blatantly in, but the answer in her heart was slowly eating at the emptiness.

 

Me: They should be. After all, I just blew up a car and killed two men in cold blood.

 

She put her phone away before he could respond and saw Amara emerge from behind the trees. The other woman, as gorgeous as she was, was dressed in a rumpled shirt, jeans, and a printed scarf around her neck, her hair tied in a lopsided ponytail, as though she’d dressed in a hurry. That fact warmed something inside Morana that someone had dropped whatever they’d been doing to come for her.

Something heavy lodged in her throat as she saw her come closer and raised a hand, waving her over.

She saw Amara’s step falter as the other woman took in Morana’s appearance. Between the dirt on her skin and her disheveled hair, the slightly torn and dirty clothes and the invisible neon sign that hung over her head screaming ‘she’s miserable’, she was pretty sure Amara knew something quite drastic had happened.

She finally stopped in front of Morana, and without a thought to dirt or grass or whatnot, dropped down on her ass, leaning back against the headstone opposite hers. Silently, without asking a word, the other woman rummaged through her handbag and brought out a sealed bottle of water, handing it to her.

Morana took the cap off, put the bottle to her mouth and chugged down the water with thirsty sips. The cool drink flowed down her throat, making her groan in bliss. She hadn’t realized how thirsty she’d been until she tasted the delicious water.

After she’d had her fill, Morana washed her hands and splashed some on her face, taking deep breaths, trying to clean herself as much as possible.

“This is quite pretty for a graveyard.”

Amara’s soft words made Morana look up at her. Seeing the concern in her dark green eyes, Morana took a deep breath.

“It is. The best view is on the other end of it, though. Near the gate.”

Amara’s eyebrows hiked up. “I don’t think you mean the burned vehicles.”

Morana chuckled. “No, I don’t mean the burned vehicles. But we have to talk about them, don’t we?”

“Only if you want to, Morana,” Amara’s rasp made the words even sweeter. Morana was pretty sure, by this point, she was more than half in love with Amara. It was impossible for her not to love her.

And after everything she’d done for her, she deserved a friend. As did Morana. Everything be damned, she was going to make a friend.

Just because she’d lost everything known to her didn’t mean she couldn’t find something beautiful in the unknown.

With that thought, Morana cleared her throat. “I’ve discovered a lot of things about myself and the people around me recently, Amara. And nothing is what it appears to be.”

The other woman tilted her head for her to continue without interrupting once.

Morana smiled slightly at that.

“I know about Luna,” she told her, watching her eyes widen slightly. “I know about all the disappearances and about the victims. I know I was one of those babies too, the only one to have been found.”

Amara swallowed visibly, nodding. “Yes, you were. Not everyone knows it though. It was kept very quiet.”

Morana nodded back, not pushing. “I know those kidnappings have something to do with the Alliance, maybe even my own abduction. And I know he doesn’t hate me for being alive and here when his sister isn’t.”

Amara’s eyes filled with a sheen of tears as she bit her lip. But she didn’t utter a word, and for some reason, that loyalty made Morana respect her even more.

Morana continued. “I know my father doesn’t care one iota for me. Something bigger than me is going on, with the codes, with everything. I know it. I know my own father put the hit on me, bombed my car and almost killed me. But I don’t understand why. Why did he do that?”

Amara swallowed, her deep green eyes shining with sincerity. “I’m so sorry.”

Morana nodded. “I just killed two men, and when I had nobody to turn to, I decided to put my faith in you. I just want you to know that if you decide to reciprocate, I wouldn’t betray you.”

She paused, then stated plainly, her heart clenching. “I don’t have anyone to betray you to, Amara. The man who’s supposed to protect me wants me dead, and the man who’s supposed to kill me offers me protection. Convoluted as that is, I wouldn’t betray that act of kindness. I’ve not known a lot of it, and what little I have has come from you and Dante and him. I cannot betray that.”

She took a deep breath. “But the fact is simple – I don’t know who Tristan Caine was. Who he is. Help me understand him. Help me fight.”

Amara leaned her head back, staring up at the sky for a long moment. Morana gave her the time to mull things over, before the other woman spoke again, in an even softer tone of voice.

“I know why he hates you, Morana. Not because he confided in me. He doesn’t confide in anybody. He doesn’t let anyone even close to him. As lonely as all of us are, he’s the loneliest of us all.”

Morana’s heart clenched as the memory of a rainy night and glass windows filtered through her. She watched in silence as a tear streaked Amara’s cheek as she continued speaking.

“Dante knew the truth because he’s the heir. And in a moment of trust, to ease the helplessness of seeing his brother bleed but being unable to do anything about it, he told me. And I swore to him on my life that Tristan’s truth would never escape from my lips.”

Morana heard the unsaid ‘but’ hovering in the air between them. She bit her tongue, not willing to break the moment.

Another tear ran down Amara’s face.

“I see how he looks at you. Despite knowing about you all my life, I never thought he’d be as he is with you.”

“How is he with me?” the words escaped her softly before she could think about them.

Amara didn’t look down at her, kept staring at the clouds overhead, her lips curling slightly.

“Alive.”

Morana felt something pass through her heart. A current, a zap, a something.

“There’s no other word for it. That’s why I don’t believe he can truly ever hurt you. Because after tasting life, you don’t really ever let it go, do you?”

No. She hadn’t.

His insistent words from the morning came to her.

 

‘Did I hurt you?’

 

Was Amara right?

Morana stayed quiet, contemplating.

“I like you, Morana,” Amara finally looked down at her, her eyes determined but pained. “I would love nothing more than to have you as my friend. Which is also why I believe I should warn you. Knowing Tristan, knowing why he holds that hatred so close to himself, he will inevitably hurt you. Not because he wants to, but because he doesn’t know any other way to be. He’s lived for twenty years without feeling an ounce of affection for anyone but Dante and I. And only an ounce. We know it, and we accept it. Are you sure you’ll be able to?”

Morana blinked, her heart pounding. “What are you asking me, Amara?”

Amara took a deep breath. “I want you to know the reasons, Morana. I want you to know, woman to woman, friend to friend but also because you’re the only one I think can save Tristan from himself. To do that, you need to know the truth. To do that, you need to understand and accept that it will be anything but easy and Tristan himself will be the biggest roadblock in your path.”

Her hands shaking slightly, Morana inhaled deeply, pondering Amara’s words.

“The truth will change the way you understand him, Morana. It will change things for you, but it won’t change things for him. Do you still want to know?”

God, this was a mess.

To know or not to know, that was the question.

Ignorance is bliss, they said. Sorry, ancient philosopher, ignorance sucked.

But once she knew, she could never go back. They could never go back. How would it change things between them? How would it change things between their families? And if he decided to be rid of her because she’d found out the truth and he hadn’t wanted that, what then?

She could leave this all behind and go away.

No, she couldn’t. Not anymore. Not until she knew everything about herself that she hadn’t known existed.

The conflict inside her, the worry, the anger, the curiosity, all tangled together in a knot lodged right in her chest, making her breaths heavy and heart sore. Twisting sensations ran amok in her stomach, as Morana closed her eyes, took a deep breath in, and nodded.

“I want to know.”

With those words, she sealed her fate. She knew she wouldn’t be the same again.

With those words, she leaned back and opened her eyes, her hands trembling again as Amara, slowly, softly, began to talk.


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