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The Predator: Chapter 8

Turning

Moments.

Surprising, surreal moments.

Had someone told her a few weeks ago that she would be spending a night alone in the penthouse of the Outfit’s blood son, she would have smacked them over the head. But then, had someone told her that she would ever infiltrate the Maroni household, she wouldn’t have believed it either. Or the confounding fact that he would save her life while claiming her death for himself.

Surreal.

Morana walked towards the elevator in a daze, unable to believe, to actually believe, that she was going to spend a night away from home in the apartment of Tristan Caine. These things did not happen to her. And yet, there she was, walking with sure steps that betrayed nothing of her inner turmoil, her mind alert of the man striding beside her. Although how a man that big could move so gracefully was beyond her. But she’d seen him scale the walls of her house with that grace. She’d seen him tilt his bike and fight men bigger than him with that grace. And that she could appreciate it irked her.

Her eyes wandered to her car, her destroyed car in the periphery, and her heart clenched again, rage coursing through her body on the heels of pain, the need for vengeance against whoever had dared violate her burning through her. Whoever it was would get it. Big time.

She saw his hand from the corner of her eyes, pressing a code on a keypad beside the second elevator, telling her it was private.

His eyes glanced at her briefly, and Morana glanced back, with absolutely no idea of any of his thoughts. How reluctant was he to her into his space? She’d have been very reluctant. But then he’d invaded her bedroom the other night, so fair was fair.

The elevator pinged, the steel doors sliding back, revealing a spacious area that could probably accommodate ten people. Tristan Caine, the absolute gentleman that he was, entered first with smooth steps and turned around to look at her, no chivalry anywhere whatsoever.

Curious but alert, taking a deep breath, Morana stepped after him and entered. Once she was in, he pushed the only button on the dial, entering another set of codes, and the doors slid closed.

The doors slid closed, and the sight made her fist her hands for control.

They were mirrored.

Their eyes locked in the reflection, her heart pounding for some crazy reason, as the elevator began to move up.

He stood in the corner, leaning against the elevator wall, his ankles crossed and arms folded over his chest, his eyes watchful on her, seeming curious, lacking their normal hateful vibes. Morana raised her eyebrows and didn’t move a muscle, her ears throbbing with the rush of blood, her entire body buzzing.

She needed to distract herself. Loath as she did to admit, the closed space, the reflections, the gaze was getting to her.

‘Who were those men?’ she asked, her voice even, betraying absolutely nothing.

He stayed silent for a beat. ‘I don’t know. I think someone wants you dead, Ms. Vitalio.’

‘Besides you, you mean?’ Morana scoffed, rolling her eyes.

She saw him tilt his head to a side, considering her. ‘You’re not afraid of death?’

Morana felt her lips curl in a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. ‘You learn not to be afraid when it sleeps under your roof every day.’

Their gazes held for a tense moment, Morana’s heart hammering as she saw his blue eyes study her.

‘Indeed,’ he said quietly. Mercifully, the doors slid open at that moment, and Tristan Caine exited.

The moment he stepped outside, his back to her, Morana inhaled, realizing she’d been holding her breath the entire time. Shaking her head at herself, not understanding at all why her body betrayed her like this, hating these reactions even as a part of her, the part that had been comatose for as long as she could remember, came to life. She needed to understand this, understand how she could control this. Because these were uncharted waters, and she had no idea what lay beyond. She was honest enough to admit that it terrified a little part of her.

Swallowing, watching his back muscles flex as he walked, she stepped outside the elevator. It opened right into the penthouse and the sight that greeted her eyes made her bite back a gasp.

The far wall of the huge space was nothing but glass. Endless wall of glass.

Morana saw the dark clouds in the sky, the skyline of the city on one side and the sea on the other, the view absolutely stunning. She’d never, in her entire life, seen something so vivid, so raw, so beautiful. Her hungry eyes roved over the entire glass wall, but she didn’t step towards it, aware of his eyes on her, watching her every move.

Pushing her shoulders back, she pried her eyes away from the spectacular view and turned towards the room.

The interior, huge and spacious, was surprisingly inviting. She didn’t know what she had expected, but what she hadn’t expected was the large living area with two seating arrangements, done in various tones of grey and blue, steel and chrome shining. The far end of the room had a long electric fireplace. Above it hung a large piece of abstract art in the shades of fire, hues of red and yellow erotically mixed together, the only point of bright color in the entire room.

The couches were plush, ice grey and deep blue, the tables all glass and steel set atop navy blue rugs that looked expensive. The marble floor was black streaked with strands of gold, contrasting beautifully with the entire decor. The glass wall took the entire space from the fireplace to the open kitchen that held a dining table for six, and high stools scattered around the island.

And beyond the kitchen was one black door, beside which a staircase curved to the level above.

Her eyes finally found Tristan Caine, and he tilted his head, indicating the door at the far end.

‘That’s a guest bedroom. You can stay there,’ he spoke, his voice sending a shiver over her that she barely controlled.

Before Morana could reply, he turned back towards the elevators. He was leaving? Leaving her, the woman he hated more than anything, alone in his apartment? What kind of an idiot was he?

‘You think it’s wise to leave me here alone?’ she quipped, disbelieving. ‘In your territory?’

He paused, but entered the elevator, turning around to face her, his face a clear mask. ‘I have nothing worth stealing. Help yourself, Ms. Vitalio.’

The doors closed.

Morana felt the disbelief warring with the strange emotion in her gut. She was in completely strange territory and she had no clue how to proceed. Did he have surveillance? Was she supposed to take him literally and help herself to anything? She didn’t even know why she was hesitating, considering the complete bull he was about her personal space.

Her eyes watched the darkening sky split open over the city contemplatively, her breath hitching at the view. A pang of envy hit her. Tristan Caine had this view every day that he was in the city.

Shaking herself, Morana turned towards the guest bedroom, and started walking, taking in the entire space which was surprising. And confusing, as was everything about him.

Opening the door to the guest room, she entered, looking around. It was simple, with a comfortable looking double bed, a line of cupboards in one corner, a window, and a dresser. Sighing, Morana entered, and rummaged through the drawers, looking for any weapons. None. Then, the cupboards, looking for any spare clothes. There were none.

She entered the bathroom. It was comfortably-sized, like the guest room, with all the basics – shower, toilet, bathtub.

Not that it mattered. There was no way she was going to relax. Absolutely not. But she needed a feel for the area. After freshening up a little, washing away the dust from her face, she quietly left the room. Coming out into the open living area, she looked up the stairs that spiraled up, wondering what lay beyond.

Shrugging, she climbed, one step after another, her eyes wandering around. Damn, she’d kill him just for that view. Coming to a stop at the top of the stairs, Morana blinked in surprise yet again.

She’d expected a corridor, a set of doors, something. Instead, the stairs opened directly into a huge, and she meant huge, master of master bedrooms, almost like a hidden loft. What surprised her though were the colors.

While the living area was comfortable but icy, this was the exact opposite. There was not a splash of grey anywhere as far as she could see. Done in browns and tones of greens, the room boasted of wood-finished walls, oak-wood doors that she assumed led to a closet and the bathroom, and a King-sized bed that looked way too comfortable and inviting. That was what this room was – warm, inviting, inspiring thoughts of lazy mornings with tangled sheets.

Who the hell was this man?

Morana stood at the top of the stairs, her surprised eyes taking in the biggest bed she had ever seen in detail – brown sheets like her own, enough pillows to make a fort. Black marble flooring added to the den-like feel of the place, another wall of glass with the gorgeous view of the sea at the far end.

The room looked welcoming. Homey.

Morana felt a sad tug in her chest, and turned to leave, just as the door across her, in the corner of the room opened, steam blowing out.

Her heart stopped.

Tristan Caine walked out, with nothing but a towel hitched low on his hips, his back to her.

Morana blinked, gaped, then ogled.

She should have left while he was unaware. She should have quietly made her way down and pretended she’d never seen him walking out. She should have turned on her heels.

But she didn’t.

She stood, frozen, her eyes mapping the multiple scars scattered over the tanned skin of his back, seeing the muscles actually ripple as he opened a cupboard and searched for something. She saw the raised, mottled flesh – wounds from knives and bullets and burns – and felt her heart start to clench just as he stilled.

He stilled.

She stilled.

And he turned his neck, his blue eyes locking with hers.

Her breath hitched.

She saw the extensive scars on his torso as he turned to face her, the flesh permanently bruised and tainted. What kind of hell had this man been through? She took in his tattoos, some of which she couldn’t make out the shape of, took in the scars, took in the impeccable muscles, coiled, tensed under the skin, his chest rising and falling evenly as his eyes watched her. Morana held his gaze, trying to hide the odd sensation in her chest as she watched him, knowing she was failing from the shift in his gaze.

He took a slow step forward, deliberate, measured, his eyes studying her sharply. Morana held her place, not backing down an inch, holding his gaze. By now she knew these games of control, and though she shouldn’t, she played them.

He took another step, the towel hanging on his hips by a knot, his abs completely bare to her eyes, a trail of hair disappearing into the edge of the fabric. Morana noticed it all without removing her eyes from his, her heart pounding, fists clenched as she stood at the top of the stairs.

Another step and he stood mere feet from her, the muscles in his body tight, tensed, controlled. His eyes were clear, his pupils slightly expanded. And seeing the pupils she realized this, whatever this was, was affecting him too. As much as he kept it under wraps, he couldn’t control those physical reactions. For some reason, that made her feel better, knowing she wasn’t the only one with a loss over her bodily responses.

It also made her pulse spike higher.

They stood in tensed silence, their gazes locked. The silence was rife with something, heavy with a kind of anticipation she could not understand, almost as if they were facing off at the edge of a cliff, a breath away from plunging down. Her stomach was in knots, a bead of sweat rolling down her cleavage to between her breasts, the conditioned air cool against her heated skin. The sound of rain splattering against the glass mingled with the blood in her ears, her own breathing seeming loud to her even as she tried to control it, to not let him see anything at all.

Another step.

She tilted her neck back, her back arching as her feet moved of their own accord backward, completely forgetting that she stood at top of the stairs. She felt her balance tip a second before gravity hit her, her hands reaching out to hold onto something and finding purchase against the warm, solid muscles of his arms. Even as she steadied herself, Morana felt his hand slip to the back of her neck, cupping her nape as he pulled her back from the edge and upright, with nothing but his hold on her neck.

Heart thudding, her hands full of muscles she’d never felt against her palms, Morana looked up at him, while he looked down, his hold on her neck firm but non-threatening, a sort of almost edge to the grip she couldn’t place.

Inches.

Bare inches.

Blood rushed through her body, small currents running down her spine from where he held her neck, her breaths coming faster even as she tried to keep it under control.

His own chest rose and fell and little faster, his breaths washing over her face, the scent of musk and something woodsy wrapping around her in the close proximity.

The sudden ringing of her phone broke the daze.

Morana blinked, shaking herself mentally, clearing her head. Pulling her hands away from his arms, she brought out her phone from her pocket. His hand remained in place.

She looked down at the caller id and froze.

Her father.

Ice filled her, cooling her overheated systems her completely. The fracture in her control repaired as she straightened and pulled away from his grip. His fingers flexed once before he loosened his hold, the imprint of his touch searing her skin, the ghost of sensations assaulting her flesh. The nape of her neck burned.

Without a word, she turned away and hurried down the stairs, every response in her body back under her rigid control, like it always was except with him.

Exhaling deeply once she stood in the kitchen, Morana picked up the call and stayed silent.

‘You slipped your detail,’ her father’s cool voice came through her line, and Morana sat down on a stool rigidly, keeping her face clear of expression and voice even.

‘I said I would,’ she responded without a flinch in her tone.

‘Who was the biker?’ her father asked, anger restrained in his voice.

Morana wasn’t surprised his goons had reported the man who’d helped her escape. ‘What biker?’ she asked.

There was a pause. ‘When are you returning?’

‘I’m not,’ Morana informed him. ‘Not tonight.’ Maybe not ever.

Another pause. ‘Where are you?’

Morana took a deep breath. ‘Since you cannot seem to grasp it, I’ll spell it out for you, father. I am not a dog you think you can leash. I’m an independent woman, and if I say I’m not returning tonight, that’s it. I know it’s not out of care that you ask.’

‘Your independence is an illusion I’ve let you sustain, Morana,’ her father spoke in chilling tones. ‘I will find out who he is. And I will have him killed.’

For the first time in the conversation, Morana felt a sliver of amusement. She hated Tristan Caine, but the thought of him facing off with her father somehow didn’t seem like the best course for her father. And she should’ve felt bad about not rooting for her own flesh and blood. All she felt was cold.

‘Good luck, father,’ Morana spoke and disconnected, putting her phone on the counter, her body slumping as soon as she took a breath.

She felt him behind her and turned.

He stood in loose sweatpants and a black t-shirt, watching her rather speculatively. Morana felt her hackles rise.

She raised her eyebrows. ‘What?’

He stayed silent for a beat before heading to the big refrigerator. ‘So, your father pimps you out to his friends and tries to leash you,’ he spoke, the heavy disgust in his voice clear. ‘What a man.’

Morana grit her teeth. ‘Pots and kettles. Did you forget the number of times you tried to control me, Mr. Caine? I can remind you if you like,’ she spoke, her tone deliberately polite.

He stilled on his way to the refrigerator. ‘I’m nothing like your father, Ms. Vitalio.’

‘That’s actually not true,’ Morana commented. ‘You both try to control me and threaten to kill me. What’s so different?’

‘You don’t want to know.’

Morana tilted her head, her eyes narrowed. There was an undercurrent of something beneath the heat in that statement. She tried to put her finger on it, but it completely escaped her, much to her frustration.

‘Actually, I think I do.’

Tristan Caine turned back to the refrigerator and for some reason, she got the sense that he was biting his tongue to keep from speaking.

Okay.

‘So, who drugged me at Cyanide?‘ she asked, ready to demand some answers.

‘One of the bartenders,’ he replied, pulling out frozen chicken and vegetables from the freezer, and setting them on the counter. Morana felt the surprise hit her yet again, seeing the ease with which he moved around the kitchen, as much ease as he would in a field of bullets. She saw him pick up a chopping board and knife.

He cooked.

Tristan ‘The Predator’ Caine cooked. Would wonders never cease?

Ignoring the odd sensation in her chest, she focused on the questions.

‘Why did he drug me?’

The knife stopped above a slice of chicken, hovering in the air as he looked up at her. His jaw clenched, that familiar hatred she’d seen in his eyes so many times flashing before he reined it in. He’d been keeping it under control today for some reason.

Baffled, Morana played with her phone, waiting for an answer.

The elevator doors slid open just as he unclenched his jaw to speak.

People had the worst timing!

Dante came walking into the area, his tall, muscular body encased in a dark suit, his hair slicked back. His dark eyes came to her, before flickering to Tristan Caine, some kind of silent look passing between them, and back to her again.

‘Morana,’ he spoke, coming to stand beside her as she tensed. ‘I apologize for being unable to meet you. Something very urgent came up at the last second.’

Morana studied him, her eyes narrowed. He seemed sincere enough. She nodded. ‘That’s okay.’

‘I heard you were attacked. Are you alright?’

Morana raised her eyebrows even as his concern seemed genuine. And then she remembered what Amara had told her about the two men being protective of women.

She nodded again. ‘I’m fine. But I need my car tomorrow.’

Dante smiled. ‘Tristan arranged for the repairs already.’

Her eyebrows hit her hairline as she turned to the other man. ‘You did?’

He ignored her, his eyes on Dante. ‘Should I get ready?’

‘Yes.’

Another silent look.

Tristan Caine nodded and walked around the counter, heading towards the stairs.

Dante turned to her, his dark eyes genuinely concerned. ‘My apartment is two floors down. I know you said you didn’t want to work with him, so if you’d like you can stay there for tonight. I won’t be home and it will be empty.’

She saw Tristan Caine stop on the stairs before she could speak, his entire body tensing as he turned to face Dante, his eyes cool.

‘She stays here,’ he growled.

Growled.

Morana blinked in surprise as the edge in the tone. It sent a shiver through her. She’d have thought he’d be glad to have her out of his hair.

Dante spoke up from beside her, addressing the man, a hand in his pocket. ‘It’s a better option. You will return later and I won’t. She can stay comfortably till morning.’

Tristan Caine didn’t blink away from his blood brother, and another look passed between them.

‘Tristan…’ Dante spoke, his voice slightly worried. ‘You don’t…’

Tristan Caine turned his eyes to her, the force of his gaze knocking the breath out of her lungs.

‘You won’t come to any harm tonight,’ he told her, the conviction in his voice hard. ‘Stay.’

Before Morana could blink, much less digest the words, he was gone.

And Morana sat exactly where she had been sitting minutes ago, completely stumped.

 


 

Rain.

Drops beating against the glass in a musical, melancholic symphony. There was something about the sound of rain that sent pangs through her chest.

Morana lay curled on her side, listening to the sound of raindrops hitting the glass, the urge to feel them, to see them, overwhelming her.

She was all alone. In the room. In the apartment. In her life.

Swallowing, she got down from the bed in the darkened room, and slowly walked towards the door, her heart heavy in her chest for some reason. Opening the door, she looked out into the completely darkened living area and walked on quiet feet towards the glass wall that beckoned her on a level she hadn’t realized she had.

The faint light from outside filtered through the wall almost ethereally. She walked, closer and closer to the glass, seeing the raindrops splash against the glass and slither down.

Morana stopped a step away from the glass, watching her breath steam it slowly before it disappeared. The clouds hung heavy in the night sky, the lights of the city twinkling on the right, glittering like gems on a fabric of obsidian, the sea on her left for as far as she could see, cresting and falling with the storm.

Morana stood on the spot, drinking in the view, her throat tightening.

She had never seen rain like this. Never felt this freedom in her eyes. Her views from her window had ended in manicured lawns and high fences, beyond which nothing could be seen. She felt her hands rise of their own accord, the profound need in her heart so acute, for something she knew she could never have, for something she hadn’t even known she’d needed.

Her hands hesitated an inch from the glass, her heart bleeding. She slowly pressed them down. The cool glass felt solid against her palms. She stood there for a long moment, aching, only a wall of glass between her and certain death. She watched the city in a way she’d never seen it, the city she had lived her entire life, the city that was still a stranger.

Her hands slid down the glass as she sat down on the floor right against it, cross-legged, and leaned forward, her breaths steaming the glass repeatedly.

Thunder crackled in the sky, a split of lightening bathing everything in brilliant white before disappearing. Droplets hit the glass in tandem, trying to break it like bullets, trying to reach her but unable to. She sat behind that wall, longing to feel those droplets on herself, longing to let them sear her, but unable to. And wasn’t that her life. Longing for things she couldn’t reach, things that tried to reach her and came up against a wall. A glass wall. Where she could see everything, know exactly what she was missing, drown in her awareness even as the glass couldn’t break. Because just as it did now, breaking the glass meant death.

And lately, Morana wondered if it wouldn’t be worth it.

Her lips trembled, her hands pressed against the glass, seeing the tears fall from the sky and slide down the walls in defeat, and felt one slip from the corner of her eye.

And felt him in the room.

She should have turned around and stood up. She knew she definitely shouldn’t give him her back, should not leave herself vulnerable. But in that moment, she couldn’t get herself to move her eyes from the view and her hands from the glass. She couldn’t get herself to tense.

She felt tired. Exhausted deeper than her bones.

And the fact that he’d told her she wouldn’t be harmed told her she wouldn’t be. She’d seen enough liars in her life to recognize a man who wasn’t. He’d made no secret of his hatred for her, and that, conversely, was the very thing that told her that for this moment, she could believe his word.

So, she didn’t tense, didn’t turn, just waited for him to leave.

The back of her neck pricked as he watched her, and she felt him move. She didn’t know how she knew. He made absolutely no sound, his feet completely silent on the floor. But she knew he’d moved.

She sat there in silence and saw his feet in her periphery.

She didn’t look up. He didn’t look down. The silence continued.

Morana kept her eyes on the raindrops, her heart pounding as he folded his legs and sat down a foot away from her, his eyes looking out.

Morana glanced at him from the corner of her eye, seeing his unbuttoned shirt teasing a strip of flesh she’d seen earlier, his weight resting on his palms that rested on the floor as he leaned back on them.

She caught sight of a small scar and felt her heart ache. She’d never really given a thought, in all the injustice that happened to women, to what happened to men in their world. She knew that power and survival were the two ultimates but never wondered about what the price of it was. Were the scars on him a norm or an anomaly like he was? Were they the price of being that anomaly in a family that valued blood? How many had been inflicted by enemies? How many had come at the hands of the family? Was this the cost of him coming to where he was in their world? What kind of a toll did it take on men? Was that why most of them were so detached? Because that became the only way to deal with the pain? Was that what had happened to her father? Was he detached because that was how he’d coped all his life, to keep his power?

Questions lingered in her mind, along with the memory of the gashes she’d seen across the flesh of the man beside her. She might hate him, but she respected strength. And his body, she realized, was more than a weapon. It was a temple of strength. It was a keeper of tales – tales of his survival, of things she couldn’t even fathom in this ugly, ugly world.

Morana thought about Amara, about the torture she had resisted and survived for days at the hands of enemies, and realized how truly lucky she had been in comparison. She’d never been abducted, never been tortured, never been violated like so many other women in their world. And she wondered why. Was it because of her father? Or some other reason?

‘My sister loved the rain.’

The softly spoken words, in that husky, rough voice of whiskey and sin, broke through her thoughts.

And then the words sank in, stunning her. Not just because it was something supremely private he’d shared with her, but because of the deep, deep love she could hear in his tone.

She’d not thought him capable of the kind of love she heard in his voice, not for anyone. And that’s what stunned her. Morana didn’t turn to look at him, didn’t even glance at him as he didn’t at her, but her hands pressed into the glass, surprise coursing through her at his words, even as it confused her. 

She swallowed, her heart pounding. ‘I didn’t know you had a sister,’ she spoke in the same soft tone, never looking away from the view.

Silence.

‘I don’t anymore.’

And the flat tone was back. But Morana didn’t believe it. She’d heard that warmth, heard the love. Even he couldn’t snap back to that detached mode that quickly. But she didn’t call him out on it for some reason.

They sat in the complete darkness, facing the sky and the city and the sea, facing the quick droplets that fell in sync with heartbeats, the silence between them not thick but not brittle either. Just silence. She didn’t know what to make of it.

Her mouth opened before she could think about it.

‘My mother loved the rain.’

A pause.

‘I thought you had a mother.’

A familiar knot constricted her throat. ‘I don’t anymore.’

She felt him glance at her then, and turned her head, her eyes locking with deep, deep blue. Something dark flashed in his eyes again and he looked away.

Morana swallowed. ‘Why did you want me to stay here?’

He sat there, not tensing, not looking at her, his gaze outwards. Silence.

‘Dante was right. I could have been safe, comfortable there,’ she told him quietly.

‘You are safe and comfortable here,’ he told her in an equally quiet voice, the words heavy with meaning.

‘For tonight.’

‘For tonight.’

Morana looked back out the window, seeing the rainfall, hearing it clap against the glass as she sat a foot away from him.

They sat in that utter darkness, with a kind of silent truce that she knew would lift the moment the sun came out, a silent truce they would never acknowledge in the light of the day, a dark stolen moment against a glass wall that she would remember but never speak of.

She would remember it because, in that moment, something inside her shifted. Shifted utterly, because in that moment, the enemy, the man who hated her more than anything, had done what no one had ever done.

In that moment, the man who’d claimed her death had given her a glimpse of life by doing something he probably didn’t even realize he’d done.

In that moment, the enemy had done what no one had ever even tried to do for her.

He had made her feel a little less lonely.

The moment would be over when the sun came out.

But for that silent moment, something inside her beyond her own understanding, even as she hated him, shifted.


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