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The Predator: Chapter 2

Colliding

God, she was seriously not supposed to be here.

It could be the title of her autobiography, given how she kept finding herself in these situations. If she ever were to write one, she was pretty sure a lot of people would be interested in reading it. After all, how many genius mob daughters lay their lives out in print for mass public consumption? It could even be a bestseller if she actually lived long enough to write it. With the way things were going through, she doubted she was even going to make it back home safely.

Dread was settling in the pit of her stomach like a heavy weight, threatening to buckle her knees as she walked on shaky legs towards the abandoned building. She was a genius but god, she was an idiot. A world-class, stupid idiot. An idiot who didn’t block her cheating ex-boyfriend’s number from her phone. An idiot who had let the said jackass ex-boyfriend leave a message for her. An idiot who, for some stupid reason, had listened to it.

She had been sitting in her room, working on her laptop, trying to undo the disastrous effects of her code when Jackson had left a message for her.

She could still hear the panic in his voice, as he’d whispered the words out in a rush. She could still feel the whispered words making her skin claw. She could still recall the entire message, word for word because she had listened to it ten times. No, not out of any lost love whatsoever, but because she had been debating her course of action. 

She was an idiot.

His frantic voice was stamped on her brain.

‘Morana! Morana, please you have to listen to me. I need your help. It’s life or death. The codes… the codes are… I’m so sorry. Please meet me at Huntington and the 8th. There is a construction site there. 6 PM. I’ll be hiding in the building, waiting for you. I promise I’ll explain everything, just come alone. Please. I swear they’ll kill me. Please, I beg you. The codes are…’

And the message had gone blank.

Morana had sat for an hour, staring at her phone, debating the possibilities. The possibilities being very simple.

Possibility One – It was a trap.

Possibility Two – It wasn’t a trap.

Simple, yet utterly confounding. Jackson was a snake of the highest order, she knew. There was a possibility that he had been paid to make the call, just as he had been paid to spy on her. He had faked his affection for her for weeks. What was a panicked phone call of mere seconds in the light of that? He had fooled her once. But was he trying to fool her again? Could this be a trap?

But that was what trumped her. Who would lay a trap for her? The Outfit? She had just been in their lair last week. She had gone into the den of the lion, had a face-to-face with the notorious Predator, and come out unscathed. She knew they didn’t want to start a mob war at all, or Tristan Caine would have exposed her little stunt that night itself. But he hadn’t. He’d let her go. It didn’t make sense for them to lay any trap for her.

But if not the Outfit, then who would want to have Jackson fake a frantic phone call to her? Was it even a trap? Could it be possible that she was being overcautious? Was he really scared or faking it?

Morana, unfortunately, didn’t have the luxury of not taking a chance. Because if he was scared, and if he really knew something about the codes, then she had to meet him. She had to let him talk. She had to get the codes back, by hook or by crook.

Not that the last time she’d taken that approach had worked out so well.

It still stunned her that she had been at Tristan Caine’s mercy. The Tristan Caine. The man notorious for his ruthlessness. He’d had her pinned against the wall with her own knives at her throat. And he had let her go. In fact, he had directed her to the door to her freedom, her undiscovered escape from the beast of the Maroni house, smack in the middle of a party.

She remembered the disbelief she had felt hitching a ride back to the hotel. Disbelief at her own guts. Disbelief at her failed attempt. Disbelief at how close she’d come. Disbelief at Tristan Caine.

The meeting, though fleeting, had been pulsating with something that had left Tenebrae with her. It had been a week since her return home, a week since she’d infiltrated the Maroni premises, a week since her failure of retrieving the drive. A week of keeping the truth from her father. If he found out, when he found out, there’d be hell to pay…

Shaking off the distracting thoughts, Morana squared her shoulders, feeling the reassuring cool of the metal against her waistband where she’d tucked in her small Beretta and covered it with a simple yellow top. Besides the keys to her red convertible Mustang, she carried nothing, keeping her hands free and her phone in the pocket of her loose black trousers.

After the last week, she’d dyed her previously blonde hair to chestnut, trying to shake off the grim remnants of the meeting. She did that often – change her hair color. With so much in her life she couldn’t seem to control, she liked calling the shots when it came to her appearance. Her new dark locks were bound in a high ponytail and her glasses were perched on her nose. She’d even worn ballet flats in case she needed to run.

Having told her father she was going to the city to shop, she’d left before her father’s goons could catch up with her. She’d done it enough times in the past to garner nothing but admonishing looks from him.

With her father, it was less about her safety and more about his control. His control of his men, of her movements, of controlling the enemy’s bargaining chip. They both had stopped pretending like they didn’t know the truth a long time ago. She’d stopped feeling the disappointment a long time ago. It had left her somewhere between fearless and reckless.

Coming here was smack in the middle of that territory. 

Stepping onto the construction site, inside the wrought iron gates that manned the single, incomplete building from the abandoned street, Morana looked around, taking the area in. The sun hung low in the sky, ready to jump below the horizon at a moment’s notice, throwing just enough light to let the building cast long, creepy shadows on the ground, the sky slowly burnishing itself from purple to a cold grey as the moon waited to come out.

Morana could feel the wind cooling against her skin, making a small shiver travel down her bare arms in the chill, goosebumps erupting across her skin like small soldiers readying themselves for battle. But it was something else that truly creeped her out.

Eagles. Dozens of them. Circling the building, again and again, calling to each other, the cacophony of their voices lost in the flap of their wings against the wind.

Dusk was setting in, and they kept circling the tall building, telling Morana one thing about the structure. It was no ordinary construction site. Somewhere on the premises was a corpse – she looked up at the birds, at their number – more than one corpse.

She should so not be here.

Tamping down the sudden attack of nerves, Morana looked down at her watch.

6 P.M. It was time.

Where the hell was Jackson?

The sudden buzzing of her phone in her pocket startled her. Exhaling to calm her racing heart, she quickly pulled it out and looked down at the number. Jackson. Putting it to her ear, she accepted the call. 

‘Morana?’ she heard Jackson’s familiar voice whisper into the phone and frowned. Why was he whispering?

‘Where are you?’ she asked quietly, glancing around, looking for anything unusual. Anything unusual except the damn eagles, that is.

‘Did you come alone?’ Jackson asked.

Morana scowled, her senses on alert. ‘Yes. Now, will you tell me what’s going on?’

She saw Jackson’s head peek out from behind the building’s door. He waved her forward. ‘Come inside quickly,’ she heard on the phone.

Morana’s eyes wandered to the unfinished building, rising high up in the sky like a dilapidated monster surrounded by birds of death. She would have been laughing her ass off at the clichéd obviousness of the setting had this been a movie she’d been watching. The last thing she felt like doing now was laugh. This was some really creepy shit. And something was totally off.

‘I’m not moving an inch till you tell me what this is about,’ Morana stated firmly, standing her ground outside the building, watching Jackson peek around the door again.

‘Damn it, Morana!’ Jackson cursed loudly for the first time, agitation evident in his tone. ‘She won’t come in!’

Morana stilled, hearing Jackson shout to someone behind him, and the certainty of his second betrayal settled itself in her gut. The fucking asshole! He’d set a trap for her.

Without waiting for another second, she crouched down on the ground behind some rubble and pulled the gun out from her waistband. Readying it, straightening her arms, she got ready to aim and fire at the drop of a hat. Her heart thundered in her chest, her breathing laborious as adrenaline surged through her bloodstream, everything but the sound of her own breathing too quiet. Except for the eagles. They kept making their own noises, right above her head in the sky, surrounding the building that reeked of death.

She had to get back to her car.

Eyes darting to the gate, she gauged the distance between the stack of rubble and realized it was a few hundred feet away. Damn. There was no way she could run through the open space without being shot if someone was aiming for her already.

Think. She had to think.

‘Morana!’

She stayed down, listening to Jackson calling out her name, his voice coming from the direction of the building.

‘We won’t hurt you! We just want to talk!’

Yeah, and she was a monkey’s uncle.

She grit her teeth, anger filling her, the urge to punch his teeth hard enough to make him bleed surging through her. Oh, how she’d love punching him.

‘I know you like playing games, babe, but this isn’t one!’

She hated, absolutely detested, when he called her ‘babe’. It made her feel like one of those floozies who surrounded men in their world. She should have knocked him down.

‘Look, I know,’ Jackson continued talking, his voice inching closer to where she hid. ‘I know you hate me for taking the codes but it was all money, babe. I did like you. We can help you if you help us.’

Was he high?

Her grip tightened on the gun.

A shot fired. The eagles went wild.

Morana flinched at the noise, her gaze sliding upwards to see the eagles flying haphazardly in chaos, completely frantic, and felt her heart beat in tandem with their wings. She waited for Jackson to speak again, but he didn’t. The dread in her stomach tightened.

‘I prefer you blonde.’

Her breath seized in her throat at the voice coming from behind her. The voice she hadn’t been able to forget for a week. The voice that had whispered the ways of murder into her skin like a lover’s caress. The voice of hard whiskey and sin.

She swung her gaze up, her eyes leveling with the barrel of a Glock pointed right at her head. She slowly let her gaze travel up to the sure, steady fingers, up the forearms exposed under folded sleeves of a black shirt, roped with muscles, up the shoulders she knew possessed the strength to pin her useless against a wall, up that scruff littering his square jaw, and finally to his eyes. His blue, blue eyes. His blue, wiped-clean-of-every-expression eyes.

It was just a second of these observations, a second of feminine appreciation before she let herself remember who he was.

And swung her arm up, pointing her gun right at his heart with his own pointed at her head, in a silent standoff.

Standing up, her eyes not wavering from his, her arm not wavering in her hold, Morana tilted her head.

‘I prefer you gone.’

His face retained the stoic expression, his eyes narrowing slightly. They stood silently for a few minutes, just with their guns pointed at each other, and Morana realized it was rather pointless. She knew he wasn’t going to kill her. He had ample opportunity just last week and he hadn’t. He wouldn’t do so again.

‘We both know you won’t shoot me, so let’s remove the guns, shall we?’ she suggested conversationally, never blinking once to give him any opportunity.

His lips curled but the amusement never reached his eyes. He raised his arm, pulling it back, waving the white flag, and she dropped her own, keeping him in his sights. The moment her gun was down, he stepped into her personal space, placing his gun right between her breasts, his face inches from her own, the scent of his sweat and cologne mingling in the air around her, every fleck of blue in his eyes somehow highlighted even in the darkness that had descended around them.

He leaned in slowly, speaking softly, his eyes hard, never moving from hers, his words making her breath hitch a little in her chest. ‘There are places on your body that I know,’ he spoke, his free hand wrapping around the back of her neck, his grip strong, just on the periphery of threatening, as the gun stayed right above her racing heart. ‘Places that you don’t know. Places where I can shoot and harm and you won’t die.’

He leaned even closer, his whisper just a ghost across her skin as her neck craned to keep their gazes locked, his hand cradling her nape, his height looming above her, his eyes never moving from hers. ‘Death isn’t the main course, sweetheart. It’s the dessert.’

His eyes hardened even more, his tone frigid, his fingers flexing on her neck in warning. ‘Never make the mistake of thinking you know me. It might just prove to be your last.’

Her heart beat in her chest like a wild animal running for life. Even though her chest heaved with something she so did not want to look at, Morana grit her teeth at the sheer audacity of the man, the sheer arrogance of him. Why did all men around her behave like nominees for Asshole of the Year?

Steeling her spine, she flashed her arm out before she could stop it, her leg hooking around his knee, classic self-defense training overtaking her senses for a moment. She tugged with her leg just as she pushed his weight with her arm, knocking him down on the hard ground, her triumph flaring at watching the brief surprise cross his face. Within a heartbeat, he was back on his feet again, in a lithe movement that would have awed her had he been anyone else. But she wasn’t done.

Morana stepped into his personal space this time, her finger going to his hard pecs under the open collar black shirt, poking him once as she spoke, her head tilted back to keep their eyes locked, her voice colder than his had been.

‘Never make the mistake of thinking you scare me. It will be your last.’

His jaw clenched, his eyes trained on hers, the tension so thick between them she could have cut it with a butter knife. His stance remained icy. She felt fire flooding her veins as her chest heaved.

Another voice interrupted their tense moment.

‘I must say, it is rare to find a person, let alone a woman, fearless of Tristan.’

Morana turned on the spot, her eyes finding Dante Maroni standing a few feet away, his huge frame encased in a suit that was completely out of place at this construction site and rather belonged to the party she’d seen him in last week. His dark hair was perfectly styled, slicked back on his head, exposing high cheekbones models around the world would weep for. His jaw was shaven clean, two big silver rings adorning his right index finger and left middle finger. With a smooth smile on his face that Morana didn’t trust one bit, she observed the Mediterranean heritage obvious in the bronze of his skin, and could not deny that Dante Maroni was one beautiful man.

He came forward, extending his hand, flashing an easy smile Morana would bet her degree on was paid for every month.

‘Dante Maroni,’ he spoke in a soft, polite tone by the way of introduction, taking her hand in his big, smooth ones, clasping it. His brown eyes betrayed his smile though. ‘It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms. Vitalio. I rather wish it were under different circumstances.’

‘I rather wish it weren’t at all,’ Morana shot back before she could help herself, years of enmity boiling in her blood, along with the knowledge that this man possibly had the drive and the power to destroy her. And that he’d possibly shot Jackson. She was pretty certain he was dead.

Dante Maroni flashed another smile, even as his dark eyes regarded her. ‘Fearless, as I said. It can be a dangerous thing.’

She should get that tattooed on her forehead. Maybe she’d pay heed to it then.

Running out of patience, she looked around the area, noticing no other living soul in the vicinity. Okay. So, she was at an abandoned construction site with two reputed, super reputed, men of a mob family, who happened to be her family’s enemies and who had lured her out here for a reason. Not the safest place but they hadn’t killed her. Yet. Had to count, right?

‘Why am I here, Mr. Maroni?’ she asked, exasperated and really wanting to make sense of everything. ‘And where is Jackson?’

‘Dante, please,’ he corrected her with another smile. Tristan Caine stepped out from behind her and joined his blood brother at his side, his muscular arms crossed across his muscular chest, no hint of a smile anywhere on his face. A tattoo peeked out from under his sleeves.

She looked at the two men, both reputed, both ruthless, and saw the stark contrast between them. It wasn’t anything she could pinpoint, except this intensity around Tristan Caine that the other man did not possess. The intensity with which he was watching her, with a handsome face devoid of all expression.

She broke away from the intensity, looking back at Dante. She could feel the intensity searing itself upon her skin where Tristan Caine’s eyes touched her. Dante’s gaze was tame in comparison.

Focusing, she grit her teeth. ‘Dante.’

The man sighed, her hand still clasped in his. ‘Jackson is dead.’

Morana felt a twinge in her gut, but nothing more. She didn’t know what that said about her as a person. She wanted to feel bad. But for some reason, she didn’t.

She just nodded, not saying anything, not knowing what to say without exposing her own lack of reaction to the death of her ex-boyfriend.

Dante nodded, speaking, squeezing her hand while Tristan Caine stayed silent beside him, and simply watched them like a hawk.

‘We needed to meet you without setting off any alarms,’ Dante began. ‘And the only way to do that was to have Jackson bring you out here.’

‘Why did you need to meet me?’ Morana asked, studiously avoiding looking at the other, silent man.

Dante hesitated for a moment, and for the first time since the appearance of his blood brother, Tristan Caine spoke, in that rough, low tone.

‘Because of the codes.’

Her heart stilled, as she looked at him, raising her eyebrows. ‘Explain,’ she demanded.

Tristan Caine gazed back at her evenly, or as evenly as he could with those eyes that were constantly X-raying her. ‘You are under the impression that I have this drive of codes,’ he stated.

Morana felt her brows furrow. ‘I know you have them.’

‘Why?’ Dante asked, making her turn towards him. Morana considered the two men for a second, confusion making her blink repeatedly, before speaking, addressing them both.

‘When Jackson stole the codes from me,’ she began, her head swiveling between the two men. ‘I tracked his cell phone records and his movements since he met me. They traced back to you,’ she finished, gesturing towards Tristan Caine.

There was silence for a heartbeat before Dante spoke. ‘And you assumed Tristan hired Jackson to spy on you?’

Morana nodded, uncertainty taking hold. ‘I had no reason to believe otherwise.’

‘Except the fact that I didn’t even know you existed,’ Tristan Caine chimed in a dry tone. Liar. Her eyes flew to his, narrowing, the memory of his recognition of her name sparking inside her. Oh, he’d known of her existence, alright. But he was lying for some reason.

His blue eyes challenged her openly to call him out on it, to dare and mention that she had been on Maroni property uninvited, in that bedroom, alone with him.

She turned back to Dante, her hands curling into fists and jaw clenching. ‘You’re telling me you didn’t hire Jackson?’

Dante nodded, his face serious. ‘We didn’t even know these codes even existed. They have a lot of power, and if they fall in the wrong hands, both our families are screwed. That’s why we flew out west to your city. Meeting you was important.’

‘And how did you come to know of the codes?’

Dante gestured to the man beside him. ‘Tristan told me about them after you called him last week, demanding its return. We felt we should pay you a visit under the circumstances.’

She had called him? She looked at him, trying to ascertain exactly why he was hiding the truth from his blood brother. She found nothing.

Morana scoffed, looking at both the men. ‘You really expect me to believe you? After you killed Jackson?’

‘We haven’t killed you,’ Tristan Caine spoke softly, his eyes hard, dangerous, the look in them sending a shiver down her spine.

Morana steeled it. ‘Yet. What’s to tell me you won’t kill me now?’

‘Because we don’t want to start a war,’ Dante finally let go of her hand, shaking his head. ‘As much as our families hate each other, fact is neither of us can afford a war right now, not with outside forces closing in on us. Killing Jackson was to silence him. He was genuinely under the impression that he had been dealing with Tristan. Killing you, on the other hand, will create unnecessary friction.’

The logic made sense. But she didn’t trust them worth her pinkie. Her eyes latched back onto the blue ones watching her.

‘So you’re saying someone went to the trouble of elaborately framing you, down to the detail of hiring Jackson, knowing I will uncover their tracks?’

He shrugged his broad shoulders, his eyes fixed on her. ‘I didn’t say anything.’

Where did all his eloquence of murder and mayhem go before an audience? Infuriated, Morana crossed her arms over her chest, watching as Dante’s eyes flickered at the action. Tristan Caine never looked away from her eyes, not once.

Out of habit, she pushed her glasses up her nose. ‘So now what? You want us to team up or something?’ 

‘Or something,’ came his very helpful input.

The chime of a phone ringing startled the sudden quiet of the area, making her jump slightly. Dante pulled his phone out, exchanging a look with the silent man, before excusing himself and walking off towards the back. The moment he turned the corner, Morana headed towards the gates where her car waited, ignoring the man standing behind her.

‘You really shouldn’t walk out without hearing our side,’ he remarked as she neared the gate.

‘Not if you pay me a million bucks,’ she threw back without breaking her stride, her entire body buzzing with tension. She was almost to her car when suddenly, without any warning, she was pinned flat on the hood, the world tilting as the night sky came into view, and along with it, the face of Tristan Caine. His hand gripped both of hers, holding them above her head as his other one pushed on her stomach, keeping her flat in place.

She bucked. He didn’t budge.

She squirmed. He didn’t budge.

She struggled. He didn’t budge.

Trying to escape the manacles around her wrists, she thrashed against the hood of her own car, kicking her legs out, trying to bite his arms, but he hovered above her, not moving, not speaking, his jaw clenched.

‘I don’t want to touch you any more than you want to be touched,’ he grit out roughly, his breath fanning her face, his eyes hard.

‘Oh please,’ Morana rolled her eyes, sarcasm heavy in her tone. ‘In the two times we have met, I can see how much you detest touching me. Pinning me to flat surfaces is loathsome.’

His eyes flared, a snarl curling his mouth, bringing the scar right at the corner of his lower lip into focus. ‘You are nothing like the women I like to pin. I certainly don’t hate them.’

‘You don’t hate me,’ Morana pointed out.

‘No,’ he shook his head, his eyes hardening by the second, resolve entering them as she saw him inhale heavily. ‘I despise you.’

Morana blinked in surprise at the hatred in his voice, her brows furrowing. She knew they weren’t fans of each other, but she didn’t warrant this hatred from him. He didn’t even know her.

“Why?” she voiced the question in her head.

He ignored it, leaning closer, his blue eyes icy, sending a shiver of fear down her body even as her arms stayed above her head, speaking in a low, forceful voice.

‘I am not killing you only because I don’t want that fucking war.’ His tone made her flinch. The look in his eyes made her stomach drop. ‘Just because I cannot harm you doesn’t mean I won’t.’

Morana looked at him, stunned at the ferocity of his hatred. ‘You don’t even know me!’

He stayed silent for a long minute, the hand on his stomach going lower, her heart pounding as panic set in. She struggled and his hand stopped, just below her navel, the gesture of a lover and not the foe, his eyes hard on her.

‘I have people who are mine. Territory that’s mine. Don’t ever invade it,’ his hand bent a little lower to her hipbone, the threat clear, making her pulse skitter, his eyes glued to her, his voice a whisper right against her skin. ‘Remember that.’

The fucking audacity of him! Stunned, Morana struggled harder against him, kicking her legs out. ‘You asshole!’

He leaned closer, his lips almost at her ear. ‘Wildcat.’

The sound of footsteps had him releasing her. He straightened, his face donning that blank mask like it had never left, like he’d not been on top of her threatening, like he wasn’t the detestable human that he was. Morana stood on slightly shaky legs, her chest heaving, her eyes glaring daggers at him as her hands curled into fists, her body shaking with the rage she could barely contain.

Dante stepped into the area, looking her up and down, frowning. ‘Are you okay?’

Morana felt her jaw tremble, her heart not even close to calm. The urge to pull her gun out and shoot him was so profound it almost knocked her to her knees. Shaking her head, she lifted her chin higher, steeling her spine and looked right at him, a snarl curving her mouth.

‘The two of you can bleed to death for all I care.’

Opening her car door, she looked back at the man who had turned her to this mess in seconds, her eyes locking with his.

‘Stay the fuck away from me.’

She saw something flicker in his eyes while nothing crossed his face, something he masked before she could see it, and she turned away, getting into her car, reversing out of the street. She never looked back in the rearview mirror. Never let herself focus on anything but the way she gripped the steering wheel. Never let herself feel anything but the blood pounding in her ears.

Everything had its time. She would have hers.

Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not the day after. But the day after that. Or the day after that.

One day, someday, she vowed, with all the rage pulsating in her body, making her shake till she couldn’t feel her fingers from gripping the wheel so hard, the rage making her body heated like never before, the rage making her whimper for an outlet.

One day, she vowed, she would kill Tristan Caine.


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