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Burn (Chapter Eight)

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THE MORNING THE SHIP WAS SUPPOSED TO DEPART ON the two-week cruise, Sydney got up very early – she hated rushing around. She invariably did something stupid when she was rushed, like the time she'd put on one each of two different pairs of shoes, or when she'd once forgotten to put on any jewelry at all for a formal dinner. She tried to be composed and together, but it rarely worked. This time, she didn't want to be in such a rush that she forgot to bring all her luggage, or left her passport behind. On that thought, she double-checked to make sure it was in her bag.

This past week had been fun, drowsing by the pool, shopping, talking into the wee hours. Sydney had really enjoyed spending time with Caro. There were very few people with whom she could truly relax, and Caro was one of them. Her personality was laid-back, nonjudgmental, and she saw everything through a filter of good humor. It didn't escape Sydney how completely different her two best friends were, though she loved both of them.

Well, not completely different. Jenner did have a sense of humor, though it tended toward the wickedly ironic. On the other hand, there was nothing about Jenner that was laid-back; even when she was relaxing, she seemed to hum with energy. She was more wary than outgoing, somewhat prickly, and as fierce in her likes as she was her dislikes.

Maybe it was Syd's own unrelenting sense of inadequacy that had made her notice Jenner when they'd been seated at the same table at a charity dinner. To the casual observer, Jenner would have looked composed, contained, everything about her discreet and understated, from her gown to her makeup to her jewelry. Syd, on the other hand, was so hypersensitive to others' expressions, looking for any hint of derision or disapproval, that she saw the tiny flare of uncertainty in Jenner's eyes as she gave the silverware a brief, panicked glance. Immediately Syd knew that Jenner was out of her depth, that this was the first formal dinner she'd ever attended, and that she had no idea how to handle the admittedly excessive array of forks and spoons.

Normally, making the first move, whether it was initiating conversation or anything else, was agonizing for Syd and she had to psych herself up beforehand; that night, however, what she'd done had been so simple, and as easy as breathing, that she hadn't had to think about it at all. She'd caught Jenner's eye, subtly lifted the correct fork, and made a lifetime friend.

She'd been so afraid at first that her father wouldn't like Jenner. He was no one's fool, and after her disastrous engagement had ended he'd become ferocious in making sure no one else took advantage of her. Jenner's background wasn't exactly shining; winning the lottery wasn't regarded with the same amount of respect as was working twenty hours a day and making astute decisions that affected thousands of people, hopefully for the best. There was no skill or talent involved in winning the lottery; it was just a matter of luck. And she was newly arrived in south Florida, so no one knew anything about her other than the most superficial information; what concerned Syd's father most was whether or not Jenner would be a loyal friend, or if she was merely using Syd as a means of working her way into society.

To her surprise, the two of them had hit it off. Jenner didn't give a flip about society, she was who she was, and that included being Syd's friend – period. There was no rhyme or reason when it came to hitting it off with a person, she supposed. It just happened, sometimes, and she was so glad one of those times had been with Jenner.

Normally, the thought of two solid weeks filled with one formal event after the other would have almost paralyzed Syd with dread, but somehow being on a ship made things different. The whole atmosphere was just easier. Being on a ship meant being in a completely different world, where the outside couldn't intrude. There weren't any phone calls to field, and people were more preoccupied with relaxing and having fun than they were with how they or anyone else looked. She enjoyed cruises in general, and this one not only promised to be fun, but it would raise money for several very good causes. She only hoped Jenner had fun, too; Jenn was such a control freak – at least when it came to staying on top of business, because she wasn't that way with anything else – that getting away from it all would either be a great relief, or frustrating for her, and Syd had no way of knowing which way she would fall until they were actually at sea.

But even if Jenn did freak out at first, maybe then she'd relax and they could have fun. The world would be fine without her for fourteen days. There was no one else in the world Syd enjoyed spending so much time with; Jenner's take on the world was so pithy that it was hilarious. Then, too, Jenner had some of the qualities Syd admired but didn't possess: strength, self-confidence, the balls to look life in the eye and dare it to blink first.

Syd heaved a little sigh. She herself didn't have any balls – at all, not even peanut-size ones. Maybe one day.

The limo arrived at Caro's right on time to pick her up. While the driver, whose brushed gold name tag said he was "Adam," loaded her vast amount of luggage into the trunk, Sydney gave Caro a long, heartfelt hug, they made many promises that they'd get together again and wouldn't wait so long next time, then Syd bounced down the steps to the limo. She cast a quick, anxious look at the driver. She did have an enormous amount of luggage, and she wanted to apologize, to explain that she'd packed to be away from home for two weeks and there were all these social events on board the ship and – She bit back both the apology and the explanation. First, to his credit, Adam wasn't scowling or looking impatient or anything. Second, he was a tall, good-looking, well-built man, and that type always made her excruciatingly aware of her own shortcomings, one of which was the urge to apologize for everything.

She settled into the seat and placed her bag next to her, thinking that when she signed the credit card receipt for the limo she'd add to the tip that had already been figured into the cost. Anyone who handled that amount of luggage without complaint deserved an extra tip.

As the limo pulled away from the curb Sydney stared out the window at the sun-drenched hills, and the blue of the Pacific off to her right. It was another beautiful day; every day she'd been here had been perfect. The prospect of another fourteen days of beautiful weather loomed in front of her, making her smile.

She checked her watch, a diamond-studded Cartier her father had given her on her eighteenth birthday. She was going to be one of the first passengers on the ship, but if Jenner's plane was on time and her limo made good time through the traffic, it was possible she'd arrive at about the same time. Syd was relieved that she wasn't going to be late this time. She knew she had a terrible habit of not being on time, and she really tried not to be late, but like almost everything else, time seemed to be beyond her control. She never intended to be late, just the opposite, but … She'd try to do better, especially while they were on the cruise.

She didn't pay much attention to the landscape as Adam drove at a leisurely pace through the upscale neighborhood that surrounded the gated community where Caro lived. It wasn't as if she knew her way around San Diego anyway, so the landmarks meant nothing to her. Instead, she let her mind wander as she thought about the days ahead, the sunbathing on their private balcony, the wonderful food she really shouldn't eat but would enjoy immensely because everyone knew cruise calories didn't count. Maybe she'd even drink a little too much now and then, and dance with a handsome Latin ballroom instructor. Uh-huh. Sure. She wasn't known for her ability to cut loose. So she wouldn't drink too much – she never had – and as she already knew how to ballroom dance, she probably wouldn't dance with an instructor, either. But she and Jenner would relax, enjoy themselves, maybe flirt a little even if it was only with someone who was safely in his seventies, and have a real vacation.

With a slight jerk, the limo halted at a stop sign, and the door locks clicked. Confused, Sydney glanced at the driver, because all his other stops had been smooth as silk, and why were the door locks just now engaging? Usually they automatically clicked down as soon as the car was put in gear.

The passenger door across from her opened and a dark-haired women slid into the seat, then closed the door with a firm bang. Sydney gaped at her, too startled to do more than make a few incoherent noises. The car started forward again, and once more the door locks clicked. Confused, she realized the first click had been when they unlocked, which meant he'd put the gear in Park.

"Adam – " she began, alarm pushing aside her startled confusion as the car picked up speed. She scooted to the edge of the seat, gripping the door handle as she reached forward to tap on the partition separating them. Surely he realized they'd picked up an unwanted passenger. He should be pulling to the curb, turning around and telling the woman –

"Just sit still, Ms. Hazlett," the woman said in a calm tone. She took her hand out of the pocket of her tracksuit to reveal an ugly black gun. "If you do exactly as we tell you, you won't be hurt."

We.

The driver was in on it. He'd deliberately stopped so the locks would disengage and the woman could get in. Everything had been prearranged; he'd known she would be there.

For a long, dizzying moment, Sydney held her breath. She clutched her purse because it was literally all she had to hold on to. Kidnapping was always a possibility when someone had money and her father had a lot of money but security in their circles was mostly limited to home security. She knew a few people who employed personal security guards, but very few, because for the most part people just lived their lives as normally as possible. So far as she knew, her father had never had a kidnapping threat. And yet, here she was in a locked car with two strangers, one of whom was holding a gun on her.

Don't panic. Don't panic. She told herself that over and over. If she panicked, she would lose control and start crying and screaming, and somehow it seemed important not to do that. All she could think was how upset her father would be if she were killed, so she shouldn't do anything that would force these people to shoot her.

Everything would work out. They would ask for a ransom, her father would pay it, and they would let her go. This would all be over in no time.

She'd seen their faces. Wasn't that a bad sign? Hadn't she read somewhere that kidnappers who intended to let their victims go after they got the money always concealed their faces, so they couldn't be identified? If a kidnapper made no attempt to conceal his – or her – identity, they usually didn't intend to let the victim live.

"People are expecting me," she blurted desperately. "I'm supposed to go on a cruise. I was on my way there – " But they knew that, didn't they? After all, "Adam" was her driver. He'd been supposed to take her to the dock. She lurched into a different tack. "I have money. Cash – "

"We won't want your money," the woman said. She was tall, with short dark hair and the sort of leggy elegance of a model, though she wasn't particularly pretty. Her tone wasn't harsh or vicious, which Sydney would have expected given the gun in her hand.

"But … I …" Sydney's voice trailed off, because her mind went blank. If they didn't want her money, what did they want?

"Stay calm," the woman said. "Do exactly as we tell you, and when this is all over you and your friend will be allowed to walk away, completely unharmed. But if you pull any John Wayne shit, your friend will pay the price for it. Understood?"

Sydney's thoughts splintered again. They'd grabbed Caro? If they don't want money, then why? And even more ridiculously – John Wayne? Her?

"We already have Ms. Redwine," the woman continued. "In a little while, we'll set up a call for you to talk to her. That way you each will know the other is okay – for now."

Not Caro. Jenner.

A bubble of hysterical laughter rose in her throat, threatening to choke her. Oh, God, Jenner was the one they should be having the John Wayne talk with, not her.

"Calm down," the woman said sharply, seeing how rapidly Sydney's control was fraying.

Sydney gripped her bag so tightly her knuckles turned white, her chest heaving with the force and speed of her breathing. Her lips felt numb. "What do you want?" she whispered, and tears stung her eyes. Quickly she wiped them away, not wanting to appear any weaker than she was, even though she knew the woman had already seen them and knew very well what they meant. They wanted her to be afraid. They wanted her to be so terrified that she'd do whatever they said, when they said it. Well, congratulations – she was there already.

"Just do as you're told" was the only answer she got. "If you cooperate, you'll be treated well. This experience doesn't have to be unpleasant."

The limo made a smooth turn. Ahead, several hotels loomed on either side of the street, some taller than others, some sterile and generic, others more welcoming. Sydney stared blindly at them. There were always a lot of people around hotels; maybe she could attract someone's attention, though the windows of the limo were tinted so dark she didn't see how. And what if she did? What would happen then? Would this woman shoot her?

"We're going to walk into the hotel," the woman said in a low, even tone, "without incident, without any sign that we aren't the best of friends. I repeat: Do as you're told, and you and Ms. Red-wine won't be hurt. We're going to check in, and you're going to hand over your credit card and sign the registration paperwork the way we've both done hundreds of times before, then we'll all go up in the elevator. I'll be watching. I'll know if you do anything different, if you try to scribble a message or roll your eyes at the clerk … anything. If you do anything out of the ordinary, Ms. Red-wine will pay the price."

That threat froze whatever idea Sydney might have had for trying to run, make a quick escape. Jenner's life depended on her, on what she did or didn't do. Oh, God, she'd never been able to act worth a damn. What if she couldn't even manage to check into a hotel without looking as if the bitch next to her was holding a damn gun on her? She wasn't an actress, she wasn't brave, and she didn't have an intrepid bone in her body. What if she screwed this up?

She couldn't. She couldn't let Jenner down. She had to get this right.

The limo turned, and came to a stop under a large, curved portico where hotel guests arrived and left by taxi, or left their own vehicles for the valet service. A burly hotel doorman in a burgundy uniform stepped forward and opened the passenger door. The woman slid out, and stood waiting, so close to the car that the doorman couldn't close the door, while Adam got out and silently opened Sydney's door. She swung her legs out and stood, carefully not looking at him. If the woman was armed, it stood to reason that he was, too, otherwise the woman wouldn't have gotten out of the car and left Sydney inside.

Adam stood just a shade too close to her, not so close that he would attract attention, but close enough that she had no hope of darting around him and making a break for it. If it hadn't been for Jenner, she might have tried something desperate like that, but they had her as effectively hogtied with their threats as if they had actually used rope to secure her.

The woman came around the car, smiling, and looped her arm through Sydney's. "Take care of the tip, Adam, please," she said pleasantly, then marched Sydney inside the hotel.

With no other choice, Sydney sucked in a deep breath, steadied her weak knees, and did exactly what the woman had told her to do. Her heart was pounding so hard and fast she thought she might faint, and her voice sounded high and squeaky to her own ears, but she handed over her platinum American Express card, she signed her name, collected the key cards – three of them – at the woman's whispered direction, and turned all three of them over to her. When the hotel clerk asked if she had luggage, the woman smiled and said, "Our driver is bringing up our bags," and that was that.

They went to the bank of elevators, the woman punched the "up" button, and casually glanced around, studying everyone and everything around them. The elevator arrived with a pleasant little tone, the doors smoothly opened, and they stepped inside, along with several other people. The woman punched the button for the top floor – the twenty-fifth – and they shot up. An older woman got off on fourteen. A young man exited on seventeen. When he was gone and the doors had closed behind him, Sydney blurted, "How do I know Jenner is all right?"

The woman squeezed Sydney's arm and glanced up at the camera in the corner of the elevator car. Frustrated, Syd turned so that only the back of her head faced the camera. "On TV, there's no sound on elevator surveillance tapes."

The woman smiled, a completely humorless stretching of her lips, and whispered, "This isn't TV."

On the twenty-third floor, another woman joined them.

They reached the twenty-fifth floor, exited the elevator, and the second woman fell into step with them. Sydney darted a frightened glance at her and was met with a cool look that sent chills down her spine. She was with them, then – whoever "they" were.

Silently she followed the first woman, with the second one pulling guard duty. They took a right, then walked all the way down a long hall to the double door at the end. A suite, then.

The woman took one of the key cards, swiped it, and opened the door. A firm hand on Sydney's back ushered her into the foyer, then turned her to the left, toward the parlor. Immediately the first woman went over to the window and closed the curtains, while the other one, behind Sydney, turned on the lights. She also turned the air-conditioning to a cooler temperature. Sydney stood beside the round dining table and watched them, feeling more impotent than she ever had in her entire life. What was going on?

The second woman had long brown hair pulled up into a pony-tail. She was prettier than the first woman, but her body was just as taut and muscled. She pulled off her jacket, and Sydney saw a knife in a sheath at the small of her back. A knife! What was this, Charlie's Angels gone bad?

But somehow the knife was more frightening than the gun. Guns made noise – well, unless they were silenced, and the gun she'd seen hadn't been – and brought people running. A knife was silent; her body might not be found for days.

She plucked up her courage. "Now will someone tell me what's going on?" She tried very hard not to let her fear show, but she heard her voice waver in the middle of the sentence.

The first woman said, "You don't need to know. You just need to do what you're told. My name is Dori, and this is Kim. Please sit down while we wait for Adam."

Sydney sat. She tried to calm herself, but it wasn't easy. Would they have told her their names if they intended for her to survive? She could describe them, she knew their names. Of course, the names could be fake, but the fact that they'd made no effort to disguise their faces still wasn't good.

The enormity of it all suddenly hit her like a slap in the face. She gulped and tried to control the violent shaking that seized her, tried to stop the tears that suddenly welled in her eyes and dripped down her face, but all of her willpower was useless against her sudden despair and she covered her face with her hands, sobbing. She didn't cry just for herself. She cried for her dad, who would be in so much pain and blame himself, if this kidnapping proceeded as she suspected it would and she ended up dead – or worse, she simply disappeared and he never knew what happened to her. And Jenner … was she being held this way? Had she been met at the airport by more of these people, was she also taken to a hotel somewhere for God knows what purpose?

Dori and Kim left her alone for a couple of minutes, then a soft but strong hand gripped Syd's arms and pulled her up, to an unsteady standing position. Those hands remained in place, literally supporting her.

"First things first," Dori said, gently taking the bag Sydney had continued to clutch. She opened the bag and searched through the contents, removing both Syd's iPod and her cell phone, a nail file, two pens, a safety pin, and anything else that was remotely useful. In a moment of bad timing, the cell phone began to ring. Sydney jerked, startled by the tone, and automatically reached for it.

Dori silently took the phone and slipped it in her pocket.

Kim took Syd's arm and led her back through the foyer, past the double doors, toward the bedroom. "In a little while, we're going to call Ms. Redwine. Use the time to pull yourself together. You're going to give Ms. Redwine instructions, and if she does as she's told and you do as you're told, everyone will be all right. I give you my word."

She sounded sincere. It was all Syd could do not to laugh in her face. Was she supposed to trust these people? She'd do what they said, because she had no choice, but their "word" didn't mean a thing. What kind of fool would take comfort in the word of a criminal?

They stepped into a spacious corner bedroom. Light poured into the room, which was decorated in blue and beige – mostly beige. There was a king-size bed, a comfortable-looking chair by the window, and a private bath.

"In a day or two we'll let you call your father, since it's possible he'll hear that you aren't on board the ship."

Yes, Syd could imagine that happening. An e-mail or a phone call from someone aboard the Silver Mist could cause all sorts of complications.

"You'll tell him you were too ill to make the trip, you must have caught a virus, but you're feeling better and you'll spend some more time in San Diego, with Caro, until Ms. Redwine returns from the cruise."

"If I'm better, then why don't I just fly to Hawaii and join the cruise there?" Sydney blurted.

Kim stared at her, then gave a shrug. "You're feeling better, but the virus is still holding on."

"You're not going to … ask him for money?" Why else would they be holding her?

"No," Kim said briefly, and her expression hardened. "Here's the situation, Ms. Hazlett. You'll notice this bedroom has no walls common to another room. There are two outside walls, and the emergency stairwell runs beside the third wall. We're on the top floor, so, barring an emergency, of course, traffic in the stairwell will be limited."

That was true. Some people took the stairs as a matter of course, for the exercise, but from the twenty-fifth floor?

"If you scream for help or bang on the walls," Kim continued, "no one will hear you but us. However, we're hoping you'll continue to cooperate. You won't be completely confined; maids will come in and you'll need to be in the parlor with us while they're here. We'll also be ordering room service, and you'll take your meals with us."

Room service that would be charged to her American Express, Sydney thought bitterly. That really pissed her off, that she was being made to finance her own kidnapping.

"If we see even a hint that you're not cooperating fully, if you do something silly such as try to signal one of the maids, our people who're holding Ms. Redwine will be informed." Her eyes turned cold. "You really don't want to do that."

While Sydney stood there, maddeningly impotent, Kim went around the room and collected the pens and notepads that the hotel provided. She disconnected the phone, leaving the phone itself sitting there so the maids wouldn't notice it was missing, but taking the cord with her. She went into the bathroom and checked there. While she was out of sight Sydney stood there, looking longingly at the door, but chained by her fear for Jenner.

Kim came out of the bathroom and nodded approvingly when she saw Sydney still standing in the same place. "Good choice," she said, knowing of course that running had been considered. "Especially since Dori is standing in the foyer and you wouldn't have made it outside."

Just then there was a sound in the foyer as someone knocked briskly at the double doors. Sydney's heart leapt, but then she heard the sound of the door opening and Dori said, "Good Lord! There's enough luggage there for three people!"

Sydney's face burned.

"Do the math," Adam said, amusement in his deep tones. "This was a two-week trip. Most women need more than two tracksuits and three changes of underwear for that length of time."

"I wash out my underwear every night," Dori said, her tone as annoyed as Adam's was amused.

"Just saying. You aren't exactly in a position to judge whether this is a lot of luggage or not."

Their banter spoke of a long relationship but not, to Sydney's ear, of anything romantic. Then Adam came into the bedroom, easily carrying two of her heaviest bags. "We'll need to go through everything, make certain she doesn't have anything in here that could cause us any trouble." He hoisted the bags onto the bed. "You take these two," he said to Kim. "Dori and I will handle the others." He flicked a quick, impersonal look at Sydney. "How's she holding up?"

"She's holding up just fine," Sydney snapped, infuriated that he talked over her as if she weren't there. She was lying, of course, because she wasn't holding up fine, but at least she wasn't a limp puddle on the floor.

"Good deal," he said, smiling at her.

She met the smile with a stony gaze. How dare the bastard smile at her?

His expression remained pleasant, because of course he didn't care if she was upset or not, didn't care what she liked or didn't like.

Turning, he started into the foyer to help Kim with searching the rest of Sydney's bags, but he stopped in the bedroom doorway and pulled a small gadget out of his pocket. Flipping out a screwdriver head, he whistled softly as he dismantled the lock on the bedroom door.

Even though logically she knew the flimsy lock wouldn't have kept them out, she had been looking forward to at least the illusion of privacy. Now that was gone, as casually and easily as getting a drink of water.

Her knees wobbled again, so she sat down in the chair and dully watched as all her belongings were sorted through. Kim wasn't careless with the fragile fabrics; she took each garment out separately, and neatly laid it aside, but she was extremely thorough in her search, even checking the lining of the suitcases. Good God, what did they think she was, a spy?

At last the chore was finished. Pausing at the door, Kim said, "We'll bring your cell phone to you in a little while, so you can call Ms. Jenner. Until then, make yourself comfortable."

Comfortable? Comfortable?

Sydney supposed that was possible, at least physically. The bedroom was nice enough. This wasn't a luxury hotel, catering more to the business crowd, but it was decent. But how could she be comfortable when she was a prisoner, when Jenner was, too, somewhere – and they were both likely to die before this was over?

And she still didn't know what the hell these people wanted.

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