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The Predator: Chapter 18

Choosing

Morana.

Present Day.

 

She didn’t know this, this coiled knot of emotions in her chest.

It just hurt.

Everything hurt. Every-fucking-thing.

Her trembling hands, her trembling lips, her trembling heart. All of it.

She couldn’t breathe. The air was trapped somewhere in her chest, close to her bleeding heart. Her throat was tight, locked down; a weight settling low in her stomach as the noise from the airplane flying overhead filled the death in the graveyard.

The airplane came and went.

And it still hurt.

She hurt.

In a way she’d not thought herself capable of hurting. In a manner she’d never known a person could hurt.

Eyes stinging, Morana blinked rapidly, years of training herself not to shed a tear in front of anyone not allowing her the liberty to let a single drop fall. But would it have stopped at a single drop? Would it have stopped at all when the weight on her chest seemed to get heavier and heavier with each passing breath?

She wanted to screech until her throat pained as her heart did. She wanted to become hoarse until the sound faded away into the nothingness inside. She wanted to scream but couldn’t find her voice.

She was innocent.

Completely innocent.

She had done nothing wrong except exist.

Yet, her very existence made her want to weep. Her very existence made her want to break bones.

She existed because of him. She was innocent but he had been innocent too. She was innocent, and yet she was stained with blood.

His blood.

The blood of his father.

The blood he had shed to save her; the blood he had marked her with trying to clean her.

People who knew the story thought he’d made a claim in that gesture. But she knew, she knew he’d just been a sweet boy trying to wipe the blood off the face of an innocent baby.

Pain and rage, hate and turmoil, compassion and heartbreak, amalgamated inside her in a knot she could feel in her throat, transfused in her blood that beat in every inch of her body, came together in a way she couldn’t distinguish one from another, didn’t understand which was directed at whom.

She closed her eyes, her body starting to shake, unable to bear the conflict inside her very soul.

“Morana.”

Amara’s broken voice made her eyes flutter open. Unlike herself, the other woman was crying openly, the pain in her eyes reflective of her own. Morana owed the other woman so much, so much she couldn’t even begin to comprehend it, for simply telling her the truth that had been stymied from her at every turn, for breaking her vow and putting her faith in her.

“Do you want me to stop?”

Morana shook her head immediately, her voice lost within her, tangled in the mass of emotions assaulting her, her jaw hurting from how hard she kept clenching it. She needed to know. She needed to know everything there was to know about him, her soul hungry for the knowledge that it had been denied. She needed to know, to understand him. She’d been locked for years from the truth and he had always been the key.

She needed to know.

Wiping her cheeks with small hands, her nails painted a green that matched her unusual eyes, Amara continued, her voice trembling like a leaf in the wind.

“I met Tristan when Mr. Maroni brought him to the house that day…” her beautiful, swollen eyes glazed over, lost in the memory she was speaking of, making Morana grit her teeth harder at the image of the aftermath.

“He was wearing this white long-sleeved t-shirt, splattered with drops of blood, one entire hand completely bloodied, his hair a mess. He was just two years older than I was but he seemed so much older. His eyes… god, his eyes, Morana… they were so dead,” Amara shuddered, looking into space, goosebumps erupting over her arms.

She rubbed them slowly. “Mr. Maroni told everyone he would be staying at the compound. He talked about Tristan but Tristan just stood there, not moving, not reacting, his eyes moving over everyone. But he didn’t look at anyone, he looked right through them… as though he was seeing nothing… It was so terrifying coming from such a young boy.”

Morana tried to find the congruence in what Amara was telling her what she’d seen for herself. She’d seen him look that way at other people – at the men in the casino, at the people in the barn, at the crowd in the restaurant. She’d even remembered him looking that way at her that first night in Tenebrae when he hadn’t known who she’d been, and her own knife had been pressed against her neck by his hands.

Now that she knew, she realized he’d evidently never, not since then, looked at her with nothing. There had always, always been something in those blue eyes of his. He’d always looked at her, in that intense way that seared her.

Amara’s voice broke through her thoughts, a gust of cool breeze lifting a strand of her dark hair, chilling Morana.

“I remember asking mama about him that night. Nobody in our world knew why an outsider had been brought into the family, more so to live on the compound. That had never happened before. But a few days later, there were rumors.”

Morana wrapped her arms around herself, a chill settling in her bones as she waited for Amara to continue.

“My mama told me she’d heard whispers among the servants about him. The servants always knew what happened at the compound, but they never spoke of it because of fear – for their families, for themselves, some even from loyalty. But they did talk among themselves, and Tristan had created quite a stir. Mama told me about those whispers, about how he’d murdered his own father in cold blood in a room full of men, about how dangerous he was, about how they said he was going to be the most feared of all men when he grew up. She told me to keep my distance from him. Everyone did. And I’m ashamed to admit, I kept my distance, shunned him like everyone else because of course, I was a little scared.”

“You were just a child,” Morana spoke up before she could help herself, her voice rusty and small.

Amara smiled sadly, fidgeting with the hem of her top. “So was he, Morana. We all forgot that so was he.”

Morana swallowed the lump in her throat, gripping her top with her fingers.

“Him being such a terrifyingly silent boy just fed the wariness everyone felt for him even more. People talked about him, and I’m certain he knew, but he never uttered a word. Nothing. The first time I actually heard him speak was years after he’d come to live there.”

Shaking her head, as if to shake off the memory, Amara continued. “Mr. Maroni had sworn his men to silence about Tristan’s truth – not out of the goodness of his heart, if he even has any, and not because he wanted to protect the boy. Oh no, it was so that the man Tristan would become one day would owe him.”

The disgust in Amara’s voice seeped into Morana, her heart shuddering. The depth of cruelty in her world astounded her. Even though she’d known how brutal their world was, this still managed to catch her off guard. There was no place for innocence here. None. What a little boy had done out of instinct had cost him everything. Not because someone wanted to get revenge against him, or because someone wanted to kill him for themselves. No, but because someone wanted to simply exploit him. He should have been loved and protected. More importantly, he should have been forgiven. Instead, his crucible had only begun at the hands of the people who’d taken him under.

“Fuck,” she whispered, not knowing what else to say, the one word encompassing the entire situation perfectly.

“Yeah. As if that wasn’t enough, he was kept away from all the other children in the family, in a separate wing,” Amara reminisced, another tear trailing down her cheek, her raspy voice trembling. “During the day when other kids went to school outside the walls or played until their time came to be trained, he was locked in the compound with private tutors. Maroni’s best men trained him, tortured him, and he never said a word. Mama said she heard his screams sometimes in passing when she went to the wing. All of us did at some point. But never heard his words. And after a point, the screams just stopped.”

Morana closed her eyes, rage infusing her blood, the urge to kill all those people, the need to kill all those people, to destroy them as they destroyed a child, so acute it became an ache in her heart. She remembered the deep, mottled scars she had seen all over on his body, the burn marks on his back. How many of those had been inflicted by these people? How many when he’d been just a boy? How many had taken him to the brink of death? To the brink of insanity?

A tear made its way down her cheek – a tear of pain, of anger, of compassion – before she could stop it. She let it roll down, taking a deep breath to calm her racing heart.

She opened her eyes. “Go on.”

Amara sighed softly, her face etched in remorse. “I’ll never forgive myself for ignoring him back then. I know I was just a child, but even back then, I knew it shouldn’t have been happening like that. I knew it wasn’t right. And yet, I did absolutely nothing to help him, not in any way. And I wonder sometimes if maybe a kind word, a selfless gesture, a hand of friendship would have made things a little better for him…”

Morana didn’t say anything to that. She couldn’t. Not with the rage she was feeling.

Amara swallowed, evidently struggling with something before she sucked in a breath and continued. “I saw him around the compound for years. I’d be wandering around the quarters, playing with the other children not under training, or helping my mama, and I’d catch glimpses of him over the years.”

Rubbing a hand over her drained face, she went on. “He was always bruised. He walked with a limp sometimes. Sometimes, he could barely walk. And even then, nobody dared pity him, or talk to him. It became clear within years that he was lethal. His silence fed that even more. People within the family shunned him for being an outsider and people outside shunned him for being on the inside. He belonged nowhere. And while nobody messed with him, nobody talked to him either.”

“Wh-what happened then?” Morana stuttered, barely able to get the words out, her heart clenching for the boy he’d been, wishing she could’ve known him back then. She’d been so alone growing up too, surrounded by people but nobody to talk to. Maybe, she could’ve extended that hand of companionship, surreal as it would’ve been. Maybe, they could’ve helped each other feel less lonely.

Maybe…

Amara smiled slightly, breaking Morana’s thoughts, her entire face softening. “Dante happened.”

Morana frowned, not understanding.

Amara shook her head, grinning softly, her beautiful eyes glistening. “A few years later, Mr. Maroni started Dante’s training with the same men who’d trained Tristan for years. They both trained in the same place sometimes. There had already been talk about Tristan taking over the family when he grew up, and Dante was the obvious heir, being the oldest son and all. It didn’t help that Tristan barely acknowledged anyone, much less spoke to anyone. Dante would try to talk to him and Tristan would shut him down so fast… he was that way with everyone. Only spoke when spoken to, and most of the time, not even then. Dante wasn’t used to not getting his way. It created a lot of tension between them.”

She could imagine.

“Then one night after training, Dante lost it. Got in Tristan’s face. Tristan tried to walk away, and Dante punched him. Tristan broke his jaw.”

Amara paused. “He broke the jaw of the oldest son of Lorenzo Maroni, the Boss of the Tenebrae Outfit.”

Morana felt her eyes widen, the implications making her breath hitch, a shiver running down her spine.

The wind swirled around them, bringing stray, fallen leaves on their laps.

“Was he punished?” she asked in a whisper, afraid of the answer.

Amara’s responsive chuckle surprised her as she shook her head again. “Mr. Maroni called everyone to the mansion. All the staff was there too, watching quietly. Anyways, he created a big scene, demanding the culprit, demanding who had broken his son’s jaw. He took it as a hit to his honor or something.”

Morana leaned forward, her breaths picking up. “Then?”

That little smile on Amara’s face remained. “Dante never spoke up or even looked in Tristan’s direction – he already hated his father. But Tristan did. I remember how stunned I’d been when Tristan stepped forward without hesitation. There was no fear in that boy. None at all. I mean, I’d seen grown men cower before Lorenzo Maroni and him… anyways, Maroni tried to threaten him subtly…”

The wind picked up. Morana shuddered. This just kept getting better and better.

“… and that was the first time I heard Tristan’s voice.”

Morana raised her eyebrows, heart pounding. “What did he say?”

The look of awe on Amara’s face, even at the old memory, matched the wonder in her voice. “God, I still remember it like it was yesterday. Mr. Maroni threatened Tristan, thinking he’d feel obliged, maybe scared, maybe respectful – God knows what he was thinking – and Tristan… he got nose to nose with Mr. Maroni and told him – ‘You ever put a leash on me, I’ll fucking strangle you with it.’ ”

Morana blinked, stunned. “He said what?!”

Amara nodded. “You ever put a leash on me, I’ll fucking strangle you with it. Word for word.”

She tried to wrap her mind around it as astonishment flowed through her. “How old was he?”

“Fourteen.”

Morana sat back, feeling the wind knocked out of her.

Amara nodded, as though she understood completely. “He was fearless, Morana. That was the first time any of us had seen a boy shut the Boss up. That was also the moment Dante decided he was completely Team Tristan. And when his father told him the truth about Tristan to make him stay away, it only made Dante more adamant to befriend that boy.”

Stealing in a quick breath, Morana asked, “So they became a team?”

“Hell, no!” Amara retorted, shaking her head in fond memories. “Dante was always a charmer on the outside. He could seduce you in one breath while planning a million ways to kill you in the next, and you wouldn’t even know. Tristan didn’t trust him an inch, but he couldn’t shake him off either. Dante was, still is, deceptively stubborn. And though he was the oldest son with responsibilities, Dante went against his father repeatedly by sustaining his association with Tristan. Maroni wanted them to compete. They basically gave him the finger. Over the years, they just sort of fell into this relationship – they’re not really friends or brothers, but they’d not have anyone else on their side in battle. It’s complicated with them.”

Morana stayed silent, digesting all of it.

Twisting the cap off the bottle in her hand, Amara took a sip of water, swallowing slowly and leaning back against the headstone, quiet for a long moment as Morana soaked up everything.

“I was taken a few years later,” she spoke quietly into the space between them, her voice husky, eyes dulling with the memories. “Tristan was the one to find me.”

Morana started at that.

Amara nodded. “Yeah, he found me and left me with Dante while he took care of the men who’d kept me captive. It was after I was found that I truly interacted with Tristan. While I was recovering, he became… more present, I guess, without being obvious about it. I didn’t know back then that it hit too close to home for him. He was being protective of me. Not obviously, and never with people around, but he just… became a presence in my life. He never talked much but the fact that he looked at me, listened if I talked said it all. That’s why I know he’s incredibly protective of women and children. I’ve seen him be that way for years now.”

It was dawning on Morana – his deep-rooted need to protect. The fact that he’d survived all of what he had and not rid himself of that need to protect said more about him than anything ever could, more than he could ever show.

“He’s never trusted anyone, Morana,” Amara continued, her voice tinged with sadness. “He’s never had much of a reason to.”

“He trusts you and Dante,” Morana reminded her.

Amara smiled sadly again. “Only to an extent. He lives behind his walls, all alone, dead to the world. We’re allowed to come close to that wall but never behind it. That’s why he’s so feared. Everyone knows he’s got nothing to lose. His weaknesses were exploited out of him. Now? No weak spots. Nothing. I’ve never, in all the years I have watched him, seen him be anything except deadly. He’s not happy. He’s not sad. He’s not in pain. He’s just made himself nothing…”

Memories came to Morana in a rush.

 

‘Did I hurt you?’

 

His sleepless eyes, the intensity of his question, the stillness in his body.

The rage in him when she’d come to him hurting. The heat in his eyes when he’d fucked her in his mind. The curses in the shower when he’d cut himself open, bleeding in pain.

Amara was wrong – he wasn’t nothing.

He felt.

He felt so deeply he didn’t let himself feel.

He felt so deeply he feared his own reactions to it.

Or had it all been a trick to manipulate her? To make her compliant for his vengeance?

A loud clap of thunder rang across the skies, startling her.

Morana looked up, surprised to see the sun was low on the horizon, hidden behind thick, dark clouds roiling over each other. The wind rushed through the graveyard, whipping the leaves on the trees in a frenzy, whipping her hair around her face, whistling through the columns, making her aware of the dried blood on her arm from where the gunshot wound had opened in the blast.

Borrowing the bottle of water from Amara wordlessly, Morana tore a relatively clean piece of fabric from the bottom of her shirt, cleaned the wound the best she could with the limited water she had, and wrapped it in the cloth to keep it from bleeding again. The bottle nearly empty, she handed it back to the other woman, aware that she was being watched by her quietly.

She needed to be alone.

She needed to be by herself to even begin to process everything she’d learned. She needed time to herself, to grasp the magnitude of how intertwined they had always been, how defined they’d both been – him more so than her – by their pasts. But more importantly, she needed time to figure out her future, their futures, or if they could even have one.

Taking a deep breath and shoving the heaviness in her throat back down, Morana looked Amara in the eyes.

“I just… I need…” she scrambled for words, not really sure what to say.

She saw the other woman’s eyes soften as she nodded, pushing herself off the ground to kneel. Picking up her spacious bag and putting the bottle inside it, Amara stood up, hitching the bag over her shoulder, brushing her backside to get the grass off.

Morana remained seated on the hard ground, leaning against the headstone, and looked up at the tall woman, the light in the sky falling right on the scar across her slender neck. The scar she’d received when she’d refused to rat on her people at fifteen. Morana had never clearly seen it before – because of scarves or makeup or shadows – but it was naked to the eye now, a thick, jarred white line of raised flesh going right across her throat.

Morana looked up at her beautiful eyes before she could stare. Amara had come to her with her scar exposed, showing a kind of trust Morana had never felt before, and she wouldn’t let it down by making her feel conscious.

“I can’t even imagine how hard this must be for you, Morana,” the beautiful woman spoke softly in her raspy voice, the voice that had somehow started to soothe Morana. “Just give me a call if you need me.”

Was this what friendship was like?

She didn’t know. Tears threatening again at the kindness this strange woman had shown her repeatedly, at the hard truth she’d brought to light despite being bound by her own word to someone she loved, at dropping everything to come to her aid at one phone call – Morana was alien to these. But heaven help her, she was going to try.

She swallowed, trying to keep her lips from trembling.

“Thank you, Amara,” a whisper escaped her, wrenched straight from the bottom of her soul. “Thank you… for everything.”

Amara sniffled, wiping her tears, smiling. “I’m just happy to have you. In my life and especially in Tristan’s. He’s… he’s spent twenty years in pain without acknowledging it. I love him, Morana. He’s like a brother I never knew I had. And he’s been through so much, so alone… just…”

Morana inhaled at her hesitation, waiting for her to continue.

Amara took a deep breath. “I can understand if it’s too much for you… if he’s too much for you. Frankly, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t. Just – if it is too much – just don’t give him hope if there’s none. He never shows weakness. He doesn’t expect anyone to stay with him, stay for him. That’s a reason why he doesn’t trust anyone. So, please, this is my only request to you, Morana. Please don’t encourage him to trust you if you’re going to leave in the end.”

Blowing out a breath of air, she brushed a hand through her dark hair. “I told you all this because you needed to know the truth about yourself and about him. Do what you need to do, Morana. I won’t deny a part of me hopes it’s what he needs too, but just in case it isn’t, do what you have to do for yourself and please don’t hurt him.”

The lump in her throat grew until her vision blurred.

She closed her eyes and nodded. “I need to… process. It’s a lot.”

“I know. I’ll leave you be.”

“Just don’t… don’t tell anyone about this for a while, please.”

“Okay.”

With one softly murmured word, Morana heard Amara’s footsteps grow distant as she left her alone in the graveyard with the dead.

Morana closed her eyes, tilting her head back against the stone.

Death. So much death.

In her past. In her present. In her future too? Was that what she was moving towards? Did she want to go forward like this? Knowing she’d done nothing wrong? She’d just been a baby. She didn’t even remember a thing, for fuck’s sake!

And yet, a part of her, deep in her gut, heavy in her chest, rooted in her heart, was bathed in pain – pain for the boy he’d been, pain for the man he’d become, pain for everything he’d lost.

It had been twenty years.

How had he survived?

Her eyes opened.

She knew.

He’d survived through sheer will, for her.

She pictured all the scars she’d seen on his body, all the scars she had yet to see. She pictured him, the young boy who’d lost everything, getting nothing but pain, scar after scar, day after day, year after year. For twenty years, he’d had nothing, absolutely nothing, except what he believed she owed him.

Her life.

He’d lived for her life. He’d held on to his life for hers. And while her heart bled for him, while she understood him, was that what she deserved? Was it right for her to stay with a man who’d vowed to collect his debt one day? Could she live with a sword like that hanging over her head?

She couldn’t.

Morana looked down at her fingers, dirty fingers, and let herself be absolutely, utterly honest with herself. No more denial. She let herself reflect on every moment she’d spent with him – from that first moment of that knife against her neck to that last moment of his text message telling her he didn’t believe anyone could handle her if she didn’t want to be handled. In the short span of a few weeks, she had changed. She had rebelled against that change, feared that change, but it had been uncontrollable.

She had changed.

And she couldn’t believe, not after the honesty she had witnessed in his eyes, time after time – about his lust, his hatred, even his pain – that he hadn’t changed somewhere too. While the boy he’d been might want her life, might still want to hold on to the debt in his mind, the man he was only wanted her.

That was his weakness.

He wanted her and he’d made it obvious. He wanted her and that was the reason she was still alive. He wanted her and that was why he’d protected her, sheltered her, saved her, time after time, from her own father.

This want was his weakness.

And she had two choices before her – she could exploit that weakness and battle with him to turn him, or she could expose her own throat and put her faith in him, her trust in him, to not rip it out.

Every single survival instinct she’d honed for years protested just at the thought of the second option. Yet, there was this tiny voice deep inside her, telling her this was the only way forward. In the last few weeks, he’d always acted in reaction to her choices. She’d have to be the one to act first.

Everything else aside, the bottom line was she was alive today because he’d chosen to save her. And she couldn’t leave, not without giving him some closure. She owed him that much for her life. Running away wasn’t an option anymore. Her life mattered everything to him. He was making it matter to her again.

She had killed two of her father’s men. She’d killed in the rage and vengeance she’d felt for twenty minutes for her car.

He had harbored that rage inside him for twenty years.

God, this was a mess. And she wasn’t even allowing herself to think of her father or Lorenzo ‘Asshole’ Maroni and all the shitload of mess with the Alliance. Her brain couldn’t sustain so much together.

Taking a deep breath, she looked up at the now dark sky as another flight went overhead loudly, the clouds stark gray against the black backdrop of the night.

She needed something. If she was going to expose her own weakness, her own vulnerability, she needed something, anything at all to tell her it wasn’t the worst mistake of her life. Anything to tell her that everything she’d experienced so far wasn’t manipulative on his part and wasn’t construed by her in her head.

A noise from near the entrance gates suddenly slithered through the empty silence.

Morana stilled.

It was late, later than she’d realized.

Heart pounding, she palmed the gun beside her quietly, forcing her hands to stop trembling. She wouldn’t be able to make any decision if she ended up dead. And she couldn’t die like this – not after surviving her father’s attempt, not after learning the truth, not after the twenty years Tristan Caine had spent wanting closure.

Raindrops clung heavily to the clouds, the crackle of lightning loud in the wind. Morana could feel it in the air, the heavy rain that would drown her tonight. It was already dark, the sun strangled below the horizon by the night, and she realized how very secluded she was.

Standing up as quietly as she could, the wind chilly on her bare arms, Morana quickly moved out from behind the headstone and crouched, heading towards the blast site near the gates where the noise had come from. Staying in the shadows, grateful for the dirt that kept her shoes from making any noise, grateful for the clouds that hid the moon and provided cover, she crept ahead, her own eyes acclimated to the dark behind her glasses, letting her see mostly clearly.

Finally coming behind a tree with a clear view of the gates, Morana pressed herself against it, leaning outward slightly, just enough so she could see whatever was going on.

Two stocky men in suits were rummaging around the vehicle she’d blown up – clearly her father’s men. One had a phone pressed to his ear while the other was looking around, smoking a cigarette, the orange glow of the tip a burning point from her vantage.

Keeping the gun ready in her hand, Morana just stayed put and watched.

And then, her heart stopped.

He was there.

Somehow, someway, he’d found her place.

Her surprise lasted only a moment, her heart heavy with the knowledge she didn’t have before. Amara had been right. Knowing the truth would change things for her, but it wouldn’t change things for him – she would have to do that herself.

Heart racing, her body acutely aware in a way it was only in his presence, senses alert, Morana watched as he smoothly got out from the black SUV he usually drove, his body encased in a suit, his usual open collar closed with a dark tie. His clothing told her he’d been somewhere important, somewhere out, and he’d come straight here.

Why?

The two men raised their arms to point their guns at him.

He shot one in the knee before the vehicle door was even shut.

The man dropped to the ground, shrieking in pain as his partner aimed straight. Morana didn’t even wince. She’d seen enough of him in action to know he wouldn’t be getting a single scratch.

Slamming the door behind him, he sauntered forward slowly, his entire body tight, agile, fluid in its unhurried movement, a flash of lighting giving him a deathly glow before shrouding him in black.

And then his voice, that voice of whiskey and sin, spoke in death.

“Where is she?”

Silence.

Her heart started to pound erratically, thundering in her chest. Without conscious thought, Morana pressed herself deeper into the bark of the tree, holding it tightly with her fingers until her knuckles turned white, her eyes glued to the man who would decide tonight if he would be her life or her death.

Her throat locked, suddenly wanting to call out to him. She strangled the urge.

Her father’s uninjured man didn’t say a word; he just kept his gun trained.

“Where. Is. She?”

He didn’t threat. Didn’t bluster like she’d seen a lot of men do.

He didn’t need to though. The three words were wrapped in so much death it was hard to miss.

Evidently, her father’s man, the one whimpering on the ground, thought so too. “We just got here. The blast took out both cars. Let us go, please. We have a family.”

Morana watched as he suddenly stilled, his eyes going, for the first time, to the burned remains of her car.

For a moment, nothing moved – not the wind, not the leaves, not the men.

“Where the fuck is she?”

Thunder split the sky; winds became chaotic, making his tie and open jacket flap against his hard chest, his gun arm pointing straight at the other man, the imminent death in his voice making her flinch.

But his eyes remained on her car.

Something tightened in her chest.

“We don’t know. We were told to come check on our guys.”

He turned to the men, lowering his gun, no movement on his face.

“Leave. Now. You turn around and come back, you die.”

The man who was standing nodded, putting his gun away as he helped the injured guy up and towards their own car. Within minutes, they were in the vehicle and driving away, the bright taillights disappearing, leaving everything back in the darkness.

He’d let them go.

Morana moved slightly out beside the tree, unable to understand him, the beating of her heart vicious, the rush of blood hot through her veins.

Dust slowly settled.

She watched him take a few steps towards the pile of charred metal that had been her beloved car, and come to a stop.

The gun dangled loosely in his hand at his side.

He stood before the bombed remains of her car, his back to her, the jacket of his suit clinging to his muscles as they tightened, before flapping in the onslaught of the wind.

Morana stood quietly against the tree in plain sight and watched him from behind, wanting to see his reaction, needing to see his reaction. Because if she was going to gamble with this man, she needed to know her cards.

She hadn’t spoken to him since that last text she’d sent him. Her phone had been switched off, and she’d made Amara promise to give her some time alone to figure things out. She’d been missing for hours, and she needed to see his reaction, not in front of those men, but his reaction alone. Because even though she hadn’t figured anything out, if he gave her even a sliver of hope, she knew she wasn’t going to run away. For once in her life, she wanted to stay.

His back moved as he breathed, his hands clenched beside him as he kept looking at her dead car. The darkness clung to his frame, only the flash of lightning illuminating him brightly for split seconds before leaving him standing alone in the dark again in the graveyard.

Thunder roared in agony.

The winds lamented.

Morana swallowed the pain rising in her chest but didn’t make a move, knowing instinctively that even a tiny motion would make him aware of her.

So, she just kept watching him, waiting for him to do something.

He did.

He touched her car.

Stroked it.

Just once.

But he did.

He did it when he thought no one was watching.

He did it when he thought he was completely alone.

Morana blinked at the stinging in her eyes as she saw his big, rough hand move across the charred remains tenderly, the sliver of hope expanding to a fragment now.

She knew.

She had seen.

And she was going to fight him, fight for him, like he’d fought for her. She was going to gamble. She was going to throw herself off the cliff and hope he would catch her. Because she didn’t see how they could move on if she didn’t do it. Lord knew, he wouldn’t.

Gulping in a deep breath, she took a step forward in the darkness, her eyes on him.

For a moment, nothing happened.

It was silent. It was dark. It was vacant.

She stood in plain sight now, enough so he could just turn his neck and see her.

But nothing happened.

Heart pounding, Morana swallowed, her own gun in her hand, and took another step forward.

He just took a deep breath, his back expanding, the fabric of his jacket stretching across those scarred muscles but he didn’t turn.

And suddenly, Morana knew that he knew that she was there.

He knew she was standing behind him, watching him, and he didn’t turn.

God, he wouldn’t make this easy on her. Well, she wasn’t going to make this easy for him either.

She walked another step forward, then another, and then another, watching his back muscles tighten with each one of hers, his body coiling.

Deja-vu hit her, from that very morning, when she’d confronted him about his hatred for her, about his sister, and the fact that she’d been one of those missing girls.

 

‘I never hated you for that.’

 

No. He never had. Not for that.

Had it just been that morning? Just a few hours? It felt like a lifetime.

But she had incited a reaction from him.

Taking another deep breath, closing her eyes momentarily and calling upon all the strength inside herself, Morana threw herself off the cliff.

“I know.”

Two words.

Piercing the silence between them like bullets.

Hovering in the air between them.

He didn’t turn around, didn’t move, only his back stretched once as he took in a heavy breath. Her hands ached to feel those muscles, feel those scars under her fingers. She clenched them into fists.

His own gun hung loosely by his side, his other hand going into his trouser pocket. Yet, he didn’t turn, didn’t face her, didn’t acknowledge her.

“I know…” she bit her lip, “Tristan.”

Hushed. Everything hushed.

He stilled even more, impossibly.

She stilled even more, reflexively.

The air between them stilled, dangerously.

She knew she’d crossed an invisible line they’d both repeatedly acknowledged but never toed. She knew that by calling him by his name, she’d ventured into territory unknown. And it scared her. So much, she stood trembling against the now calm gales, her hands balled into fists by her side as she kept her eyes glued to his back, waiting for a reaction.

It came.

He turned.

Lightning split the sky.

And in that momentary light, his magnificent blue eyes found her, imprisoned her, burned her.

Her throat locked, heart pounded, blood beat hard in her ears.

Her breath started coming faster, until she was almost on the verge of panting, because he stood a few feet away from her, cutting a lethal form in the darkness that enclosed him, wrapped around him like a lover, wrapped around her like a foe.

And he uttered not a word.

God, he wasn’t going to give her an inch, not unless she forced him to. And she would force him to. There was no other way, not now, not for her, not for him, not for them.

With that knowledge deep in her heart, she closed her eyes once, gasped in another breath, and forced herself to at least appear somewhat calm.

“Thank you,” she began quietly, her words, though soft, loud in the silence of the graveyard.

She couldn’t see his eyes clearly, so she didn’t know how he reacted to it. She was almost going into this on blind faith and hope.

So, without waiting for his reaction, or give herself more time to panic, she started to talk.

“Thank you, for saving me,” she spoke to his hard, motionless form. In a way, it was better that she couldn’t see him. It made this much easier of sorts. “Not only in the past few weeks but twenty years ago.”

His fingers flexed on the gun.

“I know it came at a cost nobody should’ve had to pay, least of all a young boy, and I’m so, so very sorry for all of it.”

Only the movement of his chest.

In. Out.

Her own breathing synced with his.

Okay.

“But I’m not going to discuss it, not like this and not when you don’t want to. We’ll only speak of it when you are ready because it’s your story.”

And now came the tricky part.

Allowing the blast of anger to shoot through her veins, Morana took a step forward, her fear mingling with the rage inside her.

“You hate me, loathe me, for something I never did. While I can understand that – I completely understand it – I cannot live with it. Not knowing that I was innocent,” she sucked in another breath. “But you did save me, and my conscience won’t allow me to move on without giving you a chance for closure.”

The scent of incoming rain permeated the air, along with the scent of night blooms that grew wildly in the area. Morana drew in the scent, taking strength from the memory of another rainy night that had triggered the change in her.

Wetting her lips, she spoke, keeping her voice as firm as it could be while her insides shook.

“So here’s the thing, Mr. Caine.” She won’t call him by his name again, not until he gave her the right. “I have made my decision – for good or bad. Now, it’s time for you. I’m giving you the chance to kill me, right here, right now.”

A beat passed.

With that aforementioned strength, she threw the gun she had in her hand, the gun that had been her savior for so long, very deliberately to the side.

His own stayed right in his hand, his eyes burning on her.

Morana pushed forward, gathering courage as the words came to her. “My father already tried to off me and if I die tonight, none would be the wiser. They’ll all think I perished when the bomb went off and all the responsibility would lay at my father’s feet – not you or the Outfit. Nobody would ever need to know you even came here or that you were involved. No blame would ever go to Tenebrae. No mess. No foul. Nothing.”

The wind whipped her hair around her face, touching her all over before it reached him, caressed him, making his jacket flap against his torso.

Thunder roared through the sky again.

Morana waited for it to quieten before continuing.

“As for the codes,” she spoke, unable to stop now, wondering if anyone had ever made arguments for their own death like she was, “we both know you can get other computer experts, so that’s not the main issue. You’d never get a better opportunity to kill me. You know it, I know it. This would stay only between us and the dead that are buried here. So, point that gun at me one more time and aim for my heart. Shoot me. Find your closure. Find what you’ve been looking for, for twenty years.”

His hand didn’t move, even as his fingers twitched. The silence, though her ally as she delivered her words, was undoing her, bit by bit.

She took a step closer to him, still keeping many feet between them, to cover for her shaking body.

“But understand this,” she kept speaking, in the same firm tone, thankful it didn’t quiver. “This is the only chance I’m giving you to kill me. After this, should you choose not to, this will never come up again. After this, you’ll need to let go of the idea that you’re killing me. After this, you never, ever threaten me with my life again.”

The hand in his pocket came out, his fist clenching and unclenching.

That small outward movement gave her fortitude.

“You deliver my death or you let it go. Either way, you need to make a choice, as I’ve made mine and come to peace with it. Because if your choices affect my life so deeply, if a choice you made two decades ago is defining my life right now, then I’ll make you choose again. This time, not as a boy but as a grown man.”

And then the tremor in her voice came out, her jaw clenching as her voice broke. “Because I sure as fuck will never, ever let you think you’ll kill me again. This is the only chance you’ll ever have.”

Her instincts were raging inside her. “So, choose.”

Her palms started sweating.

She saw his grip on the gun tighten, his arm starting to move, and she closed her eyes.

The noises around her seemed louder in the utter darkness behind her lids. The sounds of creatures doing their nightly rituals, the sound of wind rustling through the leaves, the sound of her heart pounding in her ears.

The scents were more acute as well. The scent of the heavy clouds in the air, the scent of her own fear permeating her skin, the scent of the wildflowers in the night. The storm brewing outside, the tempest breaking inside, combining, colliding, capturing.

Was he pointing his gun at her?

Her chest grew heavy.

Was he thinking it over?

Lead settled in her stomach.

Was he about to pull that trigger and end her misery? Was her last act on earth going to be putting her trust in the wrong man, yet again?

Her heart thudded.

Should she have just run away and lived her entire life with the regret of never knowing, never exploring the possibility between them? Could she have lived better without offering him a semblance of closure?

Her body started trembling.

Seconds, minutes, hours. Suspended between them. Between his choice and hers.

Memories, moments, an entire history. Stuck between them. Between his choice and hers.

Questions, doubts, fears. Settling between them. Between his choice and hers.

Silence.

She was coming undone, bit by bit. She was fraying apart at the edges, bit by bit. She was imploding in on herself, bit by bit.

She needed him to make a choice. She needed him to choose her like he’d chosen her years ago. She needed him to choose her – because, after the day she’d had, her father trying to kill her like her life was worthless, she needed him to choose her, not for her life, but herself.

Silence.

A change in the air around her.

The scent of wood and musk.

The warmth of a breath over her face.

And then she felt it.

Lips.

Soft, tender lips settling upon hers.

Her heart stopped.

It fucking stopped as her stomach bottomed out.

Her gasp got stuck in her throat as her lips started to tremble against his, her eyes stinging, her heart full.

She didn’t dare open her eyes, fearful that this would stop, that he would stop. She didn’t dare open her eyes, fearful that the moment would be shattered never to be realized again. She didn’t dare open her eyes, fearful of the tear that hung on the threshold of her lashes.

She didn’t dare breathe.

And he brushed those soft lips against her, before settling again.

She squeezed her eyes shut, her breaths hastening, fingers curling into her palms to keep from touching him since he wasn’t touching her, even as she tilted her head back as far as it would go, letting his lips lock with hers better.

A cold drop of rain fell on her cheek. Thunder rent the sky.

She parted her lips, feeling the shape, the make, the beauty of his. He captured her bottom one, sucking on it lightly before brushing her lips again.

The rain came down, drenching them both within seconds.

She let go of that tear in her eye, letting it mingle with the rain, the tremors of her lips evident against his. His mouth pressed onto hers more firmly, no other parts of his body touching hers. The scruff around his lips chafed across hers in a way that sent her flesh tingling, wondering about places his mouth could go and how that delicious scruff would feel, making her sway forward slightly.

Morana tilted her head instinctively to the side, her hands shaking as fire rushed through her veins from that minimal contact of his lips.

He kissed her – softly, simply, expertly.

He kissed her – until her knees turned to jelly and heat invaded her belly.

He kissed her – without his tongue, without his hands, without his body.

Just his lips – soft, firm, present – on hers.

It was the most beautiful kiss she could have ever dreamed of, the most untainted she’d ever imagined from him, with a softness she’d not thought him capable of. With his intensity, with his blazing eyes, the silent promises had been of devouring.

This wasn’t devouring.

This was savoring.

He was savoring her lips, memorizing her taste, introducing himself to her so much more intimately than he ever had. Her toes curled even as her heart clenched, pulse throbbing all over her body.

The rain poured all over them, the scent of wet earth rising and mingling with the scent of him, invading her senses, burying itself under her skin, making her breasts heavy and a flame ignite deep in her core.

He kissed her for long, long moments – as chaste as kisses could be, yet she felt it down to her soul.

And then, she felt the cool tip of his gun, stroking over her face, the metal kissing her wet skin from temple to jaw.

She pulled back slightly, just an inch, to find those magnificent blue eyes on her in an inferno, his shadowed face wet, lips a little swollen, stark against his scruff.

Her eyes drifted to the big gun in his large hand, surprise filling her as she saw his knuckles – the skin freshly broken over them, raindrops streaking down over the tumefied flesh. The contradiction – of him in his suit and tie while sporting bruised knuckles getting drenched in the rain – thralled her. Who had he been hitting so hard before coming here?

He put a little pressure on her jaw with his gun, demanding that her eyes return to his silently.

Morana obliged, aware of his finger on the trigger and the gun at her jugular.

And yet, she’d given him the choice.

He traced her swollen mouth with the tip of his gun, once, before settling it back under her jaw.

He looked down at her face for long moments as she kept her head tilted up, his weapon underneath on her neck, their bodies wet and close but not pressed to each other. The cold wind and water sizzled over her heated skin, running down her hot breast, the contrast erecting her nipples almost painfully. Her heart started beating faster than it already was, the need inside her, for so many things, coming to the fore. His eyes caught it, the fire in them singeing her, inflaming before her very own.

Before she could blink, his mouth was upon hers, prying her lips open with his tongue, flicking her tongue in a movement she felt between her legs. Clenching her thighs together to relieve the throbbing, she closed her eyes and went up on her toes, instinctively allowing him more.

And then, he devoured her.

Fulfilling every promise his eyes had ever made to her.

He devoured her in the rain, with his gun beneath her jaw.

He devoured her while tasting like the whiskey and sin she heard in his voice.

He devoured her without touching another inch of her body, stroking her tongue with his, tasting her so thoroughly her legs weakened, her hands catching onto the lapels of his jacket to keep herself upright, not touching his skin like he wasn’t touching hers, yet letting him support her.

Electric.

There was no other word for it.

It sizzled. It sparked. It consumed.

His scruff rasped over her wet skin, lips meshing together as heat infused her, and she knew she would carry the evidence of that burn around her mouth later. She wanted that evidence. She wanted him to look at her reddened flesh tomorrow and feel the heat in his body like she would every time she saw it. She wanted him to look at her swollen lips and remember the invisible line he crossed with her. She wanted him to look at her and remember that first kiss in the rain.

Holding onto his wet jacket, she sucked on his tongue, inviting him deeper, and got her lower lip nipped in response, the gun kissing her skin, sliding down from her jaw, down the slope of her neck, down her cleavage, to stop between her breasts.

It stopped above her heart, making it jump out of her chest even as he kept ravaging her mouth, all his heat, his intensity, pouring over her along with the rain.

A shiver ran down her spine, her fingers fisting the fabric of his jacket, her lips trembling against his, and he pulled back.

Morana opened her eyes, stunned at the force of that kiss, stunned at her own reaction, stunned at him.

She saw his lips, swollen, wearing the evidence of her wild mouth, and her skin heated, her nipples pebbling even harder, even with the gun pressed to her heart.

His jaw clenched, a vein popping on the side of his head as his eyes pierced hers for a long moment. She held his gaze, never blinking once, the water sluicing down their faces as they stared at each other.

He stayed unmoving for a beat, then two, their lips hovering right next to each other, neither making the move, their eyes on each other before he closed his eyes for a small second.

He closed his eyes, for that small second.

His Adam’s apple bobbed above the knot of his tie, for that small second.

And then his arm went down.

A breath Morana hadn’t known she’d been holding escaped her in a rush.

He stepped back, not looking into her eyes again, leaving her to be kissed by the cold rain and chilled air, his jacket falling out of her grip as he bent down swiftly to retrieve her gun from the muddy ground.

Standing back up to his full height, his white shirt plastered to his torso, wet skin and ink peeking underneath the transparent fabric, making Morana swallow reflexively, he extended her own gun back to her. Morana let her eyes rove away from his chest to his red-knuckled hand that was making her heavy gun look small.

She took it from him silently, her fingers brushing his, sending tingles up her arm.

He didn’t react, as was usual with him.

He also didn’t look into her eyes, which was unusual.

He just turned on his heel and headed towards his huge vehicle, the rain pelting down on his imposing figure in the utter night, after kissing the breath out of her.

 

‘I get my mouth on you, you’ll never be the same.’

 

His words came back to her. He’d been right.

Morana looked down at the gun he’d picked up for her and handed back to her.

She’d wanted something. He’d given it to her, in a way only he could. He’d not uttered a word. But he’d made his choice. So had she.

Taking a deep breath in, Morana swallowed, stepping forward.

And she followed him into the dark.


Comment

  1. meggs says:

    wheres the rest of the book?

    1
    0

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