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The Predator: Chapter 3

Sauntering

She had to tell her father. There was no other way now.

Morana saw the metal gates of the mansion open up ahead, the house itself looming stark white against the cloudy, grey sky, hiding the layers of red that coated it. No matter how many times her father got the house painted, she knew of the blood that remained splattered underneath the coats, knew of the horrors the pristine white hid beneath them. She had grown up in this house, as had her father, and his father before him. The house had been in their family for three generations, every owner adding something more to the sprawling property.

Her family had been the first in the organized business. Shadow Port, back then, had been known as the city of docks. Located right on the West coast of the country, connected to international waters through the sea and locally through the river than bisected it, Shadow Port had been and still was one of the hotspots for trade. Her ancestors had seen the kind of profit that could be made, and made the city their own, slowly expanding over the years to the entire region. 

This residential property that housed her had originally been only one building. Her deceased grandfather, and later her father, had expanded it to the sprawling mansion that set a knot in her gut. Especially the extra wing her father had added, where he handled ‘sensitive’ business matters. She never ventured into that wing, not unless absolutely necessary. Like it was today.

Swallowing, she slowly drove up the driveway, watching the lush green grass in the lawns roll by, watching her own bedroom window on the second floor. She had an entire suite to herself, with her own bedroom and a small study where she worked, her own walk-in closet, her own everything. She always had.

Morana had not grown up wanting for anything, not materially at least. If she’d wanted a new computer, she’d had one within hours. If she’d wanted a new dress, she’d had a whole selection of them. She used to think it was a sign of her father’s affections – giving her whatever she’d wanted. She’d been corrected of that notion pretty early in life.

He’d kept her on the top floor above his own to keep an eye on her movements. Her wishes had been fulfilled so she wouldn’t go out looking to fulfill them herself. She’d stopped wishing the moment she’d realized this, and taken her own choices into her own hands. At least as much as she could have.

Morana wondered, as she pulled up in front of the house manned by two guards, what it would have been like to have her mother while she’d grown up. Would the house have been home then?

Her mother had left her father and this life when a few years after Morana had been born. The marriage of Alice and Gabriel Vitalio had been made for the one reason older than love – business.

Alice’s father had been a shady businessman working with Gabriel and they had sealed a lifelong deal with an arranged marriage. Her mother had tried to adapt to this life, this world. She really had. But in the end, after almost two years of trying, she’d decided to leave. From what Morana had heard, she’d tried to take her as well, but her father had put his foot down and given her an ultimatum – either leave alone or never leave at all. But Morana didn’t know how true these stories were.

She didn’t remember much from her childhood. Morana didn’t know where her mother was anymore. She had tried to track on more than one occasion, without the knowledge of her father. It had yielded no results. Her mother clearly didn’t want to be found, and after marriage to Gabriel Vitalio, she couldn’t really blame her.

Her father had never tried to shield her, protect her or cajole her into a false sense of security. Since she’d understood things, she’d known every gruesome and bloody thing there was to know about their world – things that fathers were supposed to hold back from their daughters.

Ironically, she admired and detested that about him. She knew because of that very reason that he would see the codes as a betrayal and have her killed for it. That would be his form of mercy for his daughter. He’d pick an expert to kill her and he’d ask him to make it painless. After all, there was an example to be made for treason against Gabriel Vitalio, Boss of Shadow Port.

Parking the car in her open slot, Morana got out to the sound of thunder rumbling in the sky and looked up at the arched doorway above the low stairs that led inside the house. One of her father’s many goons stood against the door and she sighed, ignoring them like she had most of her life, and walked inside. Except for a few staff, she’d never spoken to her father’s men, much less be friendly. They had ignored her and she had returned the favor.

The inside of the house was tasteful, with the foyer leading to the stairs upstairs and the corridor on the left leading to the other wing. Morana closed her eyes for a second, aware she was walking to her own certain death, but knowing that she had to. Keeping her father in the dark could cost way more lives, innocent lives. With his connections and his knowledge, he might be able to retrieve the codes and destroy them.

Slowly, she ambled towards the one section of the house she’d rarely visited. Focusing on keeping her breathing even and her head clear, she kept her palms curled into fists by her side. Whatever happened, she would not beg. She would not beg for her life, or for the codes, or for anything.

She let her mind run over the meeting she’d just had in town. After ditching her bodyguards again, she had gone to the city to meet up with a college classmate, a highly intelligent man, for some advice, hoping that he’d be able to help her track the code. After a week of trying herself until her eyes burned and her fingers hurt, that had been her last resort.

So, she’d vaguely explained the problem to the guy, hoping for some miraculous solution that had escaped her. There hadn’t been any. Due to the very nature of the codes, he had remarked that retrieving them wouldn’t be possible unless she happened to be in the proximity of fifty feet. And that was impossible because A. she didn’t have the codes, and B. she didn’t know where they were. Jackson had thought they were with the Outfit. And since The Outfit sons had come to her for help, she was pretty sure they didn’t have it either.

Or maybe they did.

Maybe Tristan Caine did.

What if he did have the codes and was keeping it to himself for some reason? She’d seen him lie without batting an eyelash to his blood brother, and seen him try to scare her. What if he had, in fact, hired Jackson and falsely framed himself? What did she even know about the man to take his word for anything? From what she’d seen and heard, he was not what he seemed, besides an asshole.

The more she thought about it, the more certain Morana became that something was off with him. His entire threat to her had been for one reason and one reason only – he’d been trying to drive her away, and by running off, she’d given him exactly what he’d wanted. But the question was why? Why had he let her go from the Outfit party undiscovered? Why had he later found her with Dante, only to lie to him and kill Jackson? Why had he threatened her off if he hadn’t wanted her help at all? What was his angle? What was he up to? And god forbid if he did have the codes, why pretend not to have them? Why send her and his own family on a wild goose chase? What could the codes even mean to him?

And, devil’s advocate, if he didn’t have the codes, then why run her off since she was his best chance of finding it?

What the hell did he want?

Damn it, the man was a book of blank pages written in invisible ink that she had no idea how to discover. So much information, so many answers in the book, and all she got was frustrated.

Sighing, Morana shook her head, removing the aggravating male who was number one on her hit list if she did live long enough to kill him. But she didn’t have the luxury of focusing on him or his confounding hatred for her right now.

She had other things to focus on.

Like knocking on her father’s door.

‘Just get this over with,’ she muttered to herself, calling upon her courage. ‘You’re not a coward. You are a genius who’s created something equally amazing and terrifying. Just own up to it.’

Thunder crackled outside, almost as though the skies were having a laugh at her expense. Her palms sweating as she raised her hand but stopped, hearing the voices inside.

“Does she know?” she recognized the accented voice of her father’s right-hand man, Tomas. 

“No,” her father’s deep baritone replied. “And she never will.”

Who were they talking about?

“It’s for your daughter’s protection, I understand–”

Her father interrupted whatever Tomas had been about to say. “It’s not her protection that concerns me. It’s ours.”

So, they were talking about her. But what wasn’t she ever supposed to know?

“What do you mean?” Tomas voiced her own question.

There was a long pause before her father spoke again. “She’s dangerous but she has no idea how much. It’s best if we keep it between us.”

Tomas must have given some sort of assent because the next thing she knew, the door opened. Tomas saw her upraised arm, ready to knock, and nodded at her. His short, stocky frame walked away from her without a word, moving with a grace she’d witnessed was lethal.

Morana turned back and saw her father speaking to someone on the phone, his tall frame pacing in front of the window. His black hair, the shade of her own original locks (also the reason she’d originally started dyeing hers), was highlighted with a single streak of grey above his broad forehead, that somehow added heaviness to his face, to make people take him more seriously. His beard was French-cut and groomed, just like it had always been, and only the small lines beside his eyes indicated to his aging. From afar, he looked no older than his late thirties.

His dark eyes swung up to where she stood. The lack of delight in his gaze at seeing her, the lack of displeasure, the lack of any reaction at all was something that didn’t even pinch anymore. But her curiosity was fully flared.

‘Hold on,’ he muttered into the phone, his voice grave and retaining hints of his slight accent, as he raised his eyebrows at her.

‘I need to speak with you,’ Morana stated vaguely, the wheels in her brain spinning as she stood in the doorway of the plush area.

He nodded. ‘After dinner. We are dining out tonight at the Crimson. 7.30. I expect to see you there.’

He turned back to the phone.

Confused by the eavesdropped conversation, Morana closed the door behind her as she left, looking down at the time on her phone. It was already 6.

Sighing, Morana started towards the stairs, towards her suite, keeping her breath steady.

She was going to find out.

 

 

Crimson was one the most expensive, beautiful and elitist restaurants in Shadow Port, located smack in the heart of the city. It was also frequented by the mob families. One of her father’s favorites, it oozed class and taste from every wall, the interior designed in various shades of red, muted yellow lights creating a dim, intimate ambiance.

Morana hated it.

The entirety of it – the ambiance, the clientele, everything. One would think that people with too much red in their lives would avoid that color. Instead, they seemed to bask in it.

She hated it. She hated the way men her father did business with would sometimes look her up and down like she was a mannequin on display. She hated how she was expected to stay silent and just look good without having an opinion when she had more IQ than the entire table combined. And she hated how her father remained unaffected by it all.

There was only one saving grace. She didn’t smile if she didn’t feel like it, and thankfully that was something her father never forced her to do. Mostly, she just sat there listening to the men talk and scowled. Sometimes, she played on her phone. Other times, she just stared out the window, watching laughing couples stroll by hand in hand, observing happy families with not much besides each other.

And while their table companions had commented on her behavior previously, her father never paid heed to it. It was a simple understanding between them. She would come to the said restaurant in her own car, sit and eat silently, play the dutiful daughter, and leave in her own car. And in her twenty-four years, the arrangement had never changed. 

Sitting at their regular table for six, Morana closed her eyes, listening to the rumbling clouds and the mumbling crowd. The sky had been threatening to pour throughout the day but never really crossed the threshold since the afternoon. The chilled wind outside called to her though. Instead, she was stuck inside with the cool, conditioned air that was making goosebumps erupt over her bare arms.

She had arrived half an hour ago in her simple, sleeveless blue dress that fell to her knees in waves from her waist and hugged her torso, the straps on her shoulders baring half her back and just the hint of her breasts, with her favorite pair of nude high heels. Since she really didn’t care much about the impression she made on whomever her father was meeting, she’d worn her hair loose and foregone her contact lenses, with minimal make-up. And half an hour had passed. The crowd in the restaurant was buzzing and her dinner companions kept talking about some new shipping venture.

But Morana was distracted by the impending conversation she needed to have with her father.

Sighing, she looked around at the restaurant, at the bustling waiters and the chattering crowd, letting her eyes rove over them, letting her mind roam as well.

And suddenly, she sat up straight.

Dante Maroni sat a few tables down with two other men she didn’t recognize but was certain was the Outfit, engrossed in whatever conversation they were having.

Morana looked away quickly, her brows furrowing. It had been a week since she’d cursed him and his blood brother, and left them standing at the abandoned building. A week. What was he still doing in town? And what were the odds of her father having dinner at Crimson the same night a Maroni was there?

And then her blood rushed, the memory of stark blue eyes invading her.

Was Tristan Caine still in town as well?

Her stomach sank.

Discreetly, Morana excused herself from the table, nodding at her companions, and stood up. Her father settled his dark eyes on her briefly, before turning back to his companion.

Avoiding as much attention as she could, she quietly glanced at the Maroni table, relieved to realize Dante Maroni hadn’t spotted her. Or if he had, he gave no indication of it. Neither did his dinner companions. None of whom were blue-eyed men with a penchant for pinning her across flat surfaces.

Silently narrowing her eyes, Morana ducked behind a darkened alcove with a view of the entire restaurant, and stood in the shadows, letting her eyes wander through the place, and more importantly, the people.

Nowhere.

He was nowhere.

A loud exhale left her just as her tensed body relaxed. 

And then, her heart stopped.

He was there. Right there.

Walking, no sauntering, towards the table like he owned the restaurant, like he owned every ounce of air in that room, as though he commanded it to will. A small part of Morana could not help but admire that lethal, powerful grace. The bigger part of her could not help push her defenses on alert.

He saw down, right next to Dante.

And his eyes came right up to her like he’d known exactly where she was hiding in the alcove the whole time.

Morana did not look away. Not this time.

She wasn’t intimidated. Not by the complete focus of that intensity directed straight at her, not by the way her heart kept pounding so loudly she was sure everyone could hear it, not by the way Dante and the other two men followed his gaze and looked at her. Morana didn’t spare them a glance, not breaking his stare, not backing down, not willing to admit defeat. She didn’t even blink.

Straightening her spine, keeping their gazes locked, she walked quietly back to her table, aware of the way his eyes held her and hers held his with each step, aware of the way her blood was thrumming in her ears. The sounds of the restaurant dimmed to nothing but a distant buzz as he leaned back in his chair like he had a fucking right to even glance her way, much less stare.

It was an invasion. She retaliated in kind, sitting down.

She could feel his hands keeping her captive in that gaze. She could feel his hard body pressing into hers in that gaze. She could feel the coldness of his deliberate threats in that gaze.

Her chest almost heaved. She controlled it.

A bead of sweat rolled down her spine, chilling in the cool air, and making a small shiver go through her body. A shiver that apparently he detected from three tables down, because the moment she trembled, his eyes flared with something, something she couldn’t place, something that wasn’t triumph, something that wasn’t gloating. She’d never seen that something be directed right at her before with that intensity.

She could suddenly feel the presence of her father and her dinner companions profoundly, suddenly realizing that one wrong move on either of their parts and chaos could paint Crimson red.

‘Morana.’

Broken out of her thoughts, she turned to see her father standing with the rest of the party, waiting to leave. Flushing slightly, she stood up, nodding a farewell to people she probably wouldn’t even remember the faces of, acutely aware of that intense gaze boring into her. One of the dinner companions, a man in his late thirties from the looks of him, picked up her hand and brushed a kiss across her knuckles, locking his bland blue eyes with hers.

‘It was a pleasure meeting you.’

Yeah right. She doubted he even knew her name.

She nodded nonetheless, pulling her hand back, restraining the urge to wipe it on her dress, and turned to her father.

‘I’ll see you at the house in a few minutes. We can talk then.’

“Your guard will follow you.”

Nodding, he escorted his companions outside, his security team following after him, only one of them remaining behind to tail her as she stood at the same spot, breathing in heavily, that gaze never having left her the entire time. The truth weighed down on her.

Shaking her head, she turned, her eyes locking again with those intense blue ones, right before she picked up her purse, and headed to the back entrance.

“Miss Vitalio,” the manager nodded at her respectfully. Morana nodded back, used to the staff knowing who she was here.

With a few more nods, she reached the back entrance and exited into the alley behind the restaurant, ready to take the short cut to her parked car. The moment she stepped into the alley with her father’s man on her heels, thunder split the sky. Hurrying on her heels as they clicked on the pavement, she was almost at the end of the dark alley when another set of footsteps joined the ones following her.

Halting in her tracks, she turned to see Tristan Caine striding towards her purposefully, his huge frame clothed casually in a brown leather jacket and dark jeans. His long, sure strides were aimed right for her. She stayed still even as a small part of her urged her to run. She quelled it, standing her ground, watching him as he stopped a few feet away, just as her father’s man pointed a gun at him.

“Step back, or I’ll shoot you.”

Tristan Caine raised one eyebrow at him, not even sparing the gun pointed at his heart a glance. Almost casually, he gripped her guard’s wrist. And then, in a move that almost had Morana’s jaw dropping, he twisted the wrist, applying pressure and bending it back, making the man fall to his knees with a sharp cry, the gun now pointed back at him, like he’d pointed her own knives at her that first night, tables turned.

All without blinking away from her.

Message delivered.

Morana curled her fingers into her palms, willing her heart to calm down, as another realization dawned upon her, watching him take the gun out of the man’s grasp. She was unarmed. Fuck.

Heart pounding, she kept her eyes carefully on him, waiting to see what he would do, the darkness in the alley casting shadows over half his body, making him seem even more lethal.

Tristan Caine took the gun from her father’s man, unloaded it, and punched the guy in the face once, knocking him out cold. Impressive. Had she not known better, she’d have called him a show-off. But she knew better. Watching the ease with which he did all this, Morana suddenly realized how easy it must have been for him to kill her at any moment. And that was not a knowledge she liked having.

She crossed her arms over her chest, silently appraising him, unwilling to break either eye contact or the silence first.

He seemed to be on the same page.

His actions confused her, just as he did. She knew there was no love lost between them, and knew they’d see each other at the bottom of the ocean the moment they could.

She just didn’t know what he wanted as of now, following her like he had and knocking out her protective detail as he had, but it sure as hell wasn’t to just stare at her across five feet of space with a thunderstorm coming. And she sure as hell wasn’t going to stick around for it. Driving in the rain was a bitch.

Sighing, she turned to head towards her car, only to stop cold in her tracks, seeing the alley blocked by Dante and the other two men, standing far enough away not to hear her but close enough to not let her escape. A frisson of fear traveled down her body before she tamped it down.

‘I didn’t know your father pimped you out to his friends, Ms. Vitalio,’ Tristan Caine said quietly from behind her.

Morana felt the fear slowly be replaced by fury just at the sound of his voice, the same voice that had tried to scare her last week, the same voice which had recited murder across her skin that first time. The fury magnified at his words but she leashed it. She turned to face him, keeping her voice cool.

‘Why the formality, especially with the kind of liberties you take?’ she spoke in a conversational tone.

His eyes narrowed slightly, his face remaining clear of any expression otherwise. ‘I haven’t taken any liberties,’ he replied in the same conversational tone she was using. ‘Yet.’

Lightning split the sky, illuminating the entire alley in bright light to her eyes, showing her the man standing before her.

Morana studied him for a second, willing herself to remain calm and objective. Tristan Caine had an angle. She’d be damned if she couldn’t figure it out.

She took a step towards him, almost into his personal space, their height difference a disadvantage. Even in her heels, she barely reached his chin. Her head tilted back to keep their eyes together, her heart thundering in her chest, watching him closely for any reaction at all. There was none.

‘I wonder,’ Morana deliberately smiled at him, her body burning with anger. ‘Is that supposed to intimidate me?’

And that got her a reaction. One raised eyebrow. Blue eyes that pierced hers. ‘You’re stupid if it doesn’t.’

She let herself sneer at that. ‘I’m many things, Mr. Caine. Stupid I am not. Which is exactly why I know your threats don’t mean shit.’

His eyes suddenly burned with that same undefinable something she’d seen in the restaurant, his head tilting to the side. He stayed silent, waiting.

Morana took another step closer, not knowing where the bravado of provoking him was coming from, not caring, just needing to. Her neck craned even with her heels, but she never broke their gaze.

‘Oh yes,’ she spoke softly, leaning closer, her chin almost touching his chest, ‘did you honestly think that that entire ‘Don’t invade my territory’ thing on the car scared me? Not a bit. It only pissed me off.’

He didn’t utter a word, didn’t move a muscle. He just looked at her, with those eyes, and her heart hammered even as she went on.

‘Why don’t you just get it over with?’ she challenged, calling his bluff, her gaze right on him. ‘There is a wall right there. There is even a car. Pin me down and ‘invade my territory’. Or if you hate me as you say, hurt me. Kill me. Why don’t you?’

Morana felt her body trembling by the end of her tirade while he stood stone-still, their gazes locked, their bodies almost touching. For long moments, he just looked at her with those icy eyes, something burning inside him, and her heart beat in a wild staccato against her ribs, thumping with a vengeance, almost chiding her for her words even as she controlled her breathing and kept her chest from heaving. He would pounce on a single sign of vulnerability.

Slowly, after long, long seconds, his hand came up to cup the back of her neck, almost like a lover’s, his huge hand cocooning the entire nape in its grip. Morana froze, her muscles stilling, suddenly realizing that this had been very foolish. What if he hadn’t been bluffing and she’d provoked the beast? He could kill her right then and make her disappear from the face of the earth and no one would know.

His thumb slowly traced her jaw while his hand held the back of her neck, keeping her head tilted back and their eyes locked, the rough pad of his thumb stroking her soft skin almost like a caress. A shiver wracked her body under his hawk-like gaze, a shiver she couldn’t control as her body reacted, and his unsmiling mouth twisted a little, the scruff on his jaw seeming even more virile this close, the little scar at the corner of his lip peeking out. His thumb settled upon her racing pulse, and her heart started pounding even harder, pulse spiking even more, as she pursed her lips.

‘Your heart is beating way too fast for someone so in control,’ he murmured softly, the words ghosting over her face, the faint smell of scotch he must have had on his breath, his own scent, an odd mix of sweat and cologne and something musky invading her senses. She kept those senses on alert, seeing the rings of blue in his eyes, the long lashes as he blinked once, noticing every single thing.

He leaned in closer, his mouth almost inches away, and he spoke softly, lethally. ‘I warned you not to think, for one second, that you know me.’

‘And I warned you not to think, for one second, that you scare me,’ she reminded him in the same whisper.

‘Don’t think,’ he started, his eyes hardening, ‘that if I have the chance, I won’t kill you.’

‘But that’s the thing, Mr. Caine. You don’t have the chance.’

Straightening her spine, she stepped back, removing his hand from her skin, ignoring the tingling sensation as she felt the muscle of his forearms, and grit her teeth. ‘So, for now, you understand one thing. This is my territory, my city, my house. And you’ve overstayed your welcome. Leave before you are thrown out with broken bones.’

Tristan Caine pinned her with his eyes once again, just as the wind picked up, swirling her dress around her legs.

‘One day, Ms. Vitalio,’ he spoke quietly, ‘I am going to enjoy collecting that debt very much.’

He leaned in, lining his mouth with her ear, his scruff rasping against her skin as her hands fisted to keep another shiver down. ‘And you know what? You’re going to enjoy repaying it.’

Of all the…

Before she could utter a single word, he was striding away from her towards the car where the entourage waited, leaving her standing alone in the alley, the hard lines of his body moving quickly over to the car, as he addressed his people.

‘We are done here.’

Oh, they were not done. They were so not done.

But why had they intercepted her in the alley? If it had been about codes, why leave before talking about them? And if not, then why meet her at all?

What the hell did this man want?

Morana didn’t know what he wanted from her, why he seemed intent on collecting a debt she didn’t even consider one at all. He was still that book of invisible ink she couldn’t decipher. A book she absolutely did not want to read. No. She wanted to burn the book and blow the ashes in the wind. She wanted to tear the pages and melt them in the rain.

But as everyone got in the car and she stood in the alley, as lightning lit the sky once again just as he opened the car door, he turned one last time to see her. She locked eyes with him one last time and saw that same something simmer in that intense gaze.

As her heart beat like a bird frantically flapping its wings against the cage to get free, Morana saw him for what he was.

A predator in the skin of a man.

And she knew one thing undeniably, deep in her bones.

They were not done.


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