Burn (Chapter Fifteen)
This morning, however, even after she woke she couldn't make herself get up right away. Instead she kept dozing, lulled by the darkness and the subtle rocking of the ship. Gradually she realized that the darkness wasn't due to the hour, but that she'd pulled the covers over her head. She was toasty warm from head to toe, she was comfortable, and she was … not handcuffed.
Galvanized, she bolted upright out of the nest of covers.
Her first wild hope was that she was alone in the suite, that either she'd just had a wild, Dallas-type dream or that a single night of surveillance had given them the information they wanted and they'd all disappeared in a submarine or something. That hope was immediately dashed to bits, because Cael was sitting in the chair beside the bed where he'd handcuffed her the night before.
He had an earbud in place, but when she jumped to her feet in the middle of the bed he glanced up and said drily, "It erupts."
Deflated, she sat down with more force than grace. "How did you uncuff me without waking me?"
"You were sleeping like Dracula at high noon. I thought about pouring cold water on you, but I appreciated the peace and quiet too much."
He'd shaved, she realized; the shadow was gone from his jaw. That meant he'd showered, leaving her alone in the bedroom. To test her cooperation, maybe? Would it have been the kind of test where Bridget waited right outside the door to see if she tried anything? Or had he not played any games and had Bridget here in the suite, watching her? Probably the latter, because she couldn't see him taking any chances, if what they were doing was important enough to rate all this trouble. She knew she wouldn't, if she were in his position.
He was also wearing different clothes, khaki pants and a royal blue silk shirt that darkened the blue of his eyes to something approaching breathtaking. Bridget must have brought his clothes from the stateroom he'd been sharing with Tiffany. Jenner couldn't believe how soundly she'd slept, with all that activity going on.
Then she realized something else, something that stole the breath from her lungs: He was watching the movement of her breasts under the flimsy tank top.
She wasn't easily embarrassed, but heat flooded her face. Last night she hadn't given a damn whether or not she was wearing a bra, but she'd slept since then, finally, and moreover she'd slept with him. Even though she'd been cocooned in the covers, he'd been mostly naked, and a muscled body like that wasn't one she could easily forget, though she intended to do her level best to ignore it.
Or maybe not. She found herself jamming her finger at him. "Don't even think I'll go all Stockholm syndrome. You got that?"
"God save me," he returned. "But if you don't want a man to look, then don't bounce up and down in front of him. Not that yours are big enough to do much bouncing, but they do wobble a little."
"What they do is none of your business. Just keep your eyes north." There didn't seem to be any way she could drive that point any further, so she went on to a different subject. "I'm going to take a shower and wash my hair, so I'll be awhile."
"Don't take too long," he advised, glancing at his watch. "You have forty minutes."
That ticked her off, because she hadn't put a limit on his bathroom time. Her shoulders stiff, she marched to the closet and got out the clothes she was wearing that day. She couldn't find her toiletries, though, and began going through all the built-in drawers in frustration.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for my shampoo and stuff."
"Everything's already in the bathroom. Didn't you notice last night when you washed your face?"
Last night she'd been practically comatose, so, no, she hadn't noticed anything. She'd even brushed her teeth without wondering how her toothbrush and toothpaste got in the bathroom. Wheeling, she took her things into the bathroom and jerked the door shut. Everything was there, from perfumed lotion to hair spray. Her shampoo was sitting on one of the shelves under the sink.
Forty minutes, huh? She thought about locking the door, but didn't want to provoke him – he might retaliate by making her leave the door open at all times, and she didn't want that. When she was in the bathroom was probably the only time she'd be alone. The time limit meant she couldn't have a long soak in the whirlpool tub, not that she was the soaking type anyway. Her normal routine was to jump in the shower and jump out again as quickly as possible, so that was what she did. She'd been issued a challenge, and she met it head-on.
The bathroom came furnished with a hairdryer, a good one. Her hair was fairly short, so drying it didn't take long, and her current style was more windblown than sleek. Her makeup during the day was no big deal, just eye shadow, mascara, and lip gloss, so that didn't take a lot of time. She was out of the bathroom well within his time limit.
He raised one eyebrow, which was damn annoying because she couldn't control her own eyebrows that way, and took a leisurely sip of coffee.
Coffee. Her attention zeroed in on it like a bear on honey. She had the beginnings of a headache that said she'd better get some caffeine soon, in any form. "Is there any more coffee?"
Coffee might mean food, too. She hadn't eaten much the night before, and they were several time zones past her normal breakfast hour. A glance at the clock told her they'd even gone past her normal lunchtime.
"You might have time for a cup," he said, getting up. He glanced at the surveillance equipment, evidently assuring himself it was still working, then escorted her into the living room. The small dining alcove was to the right, tucked in a nook close to the door. A tray bearing a coffee carafe, another cup, and a variety of sweeteners and creamers was in the middle of the round table. "Sit," he said, and when she did he deftly handcuffed her to the table leg.
Mentally she rolled her eyes, but the coffee carafe had the lion's share of her attention. There wasn't any food in sight, but right now coffee was her number one priority. At least this time he'd handcuffed her left hand, instead of her right. Setting the clean cup upright, she poured the coffee and gratefully took her first sip.
She'd had exactly four sips when there was a knock on the door, and a half-second later Bridget unlocked it and stepped into the suite, crisply announcing herself as she shut the door. "Lifeboat drill, five minutes," she added.
So that was why he'd given her the time limit, though he could have explained. Jenner glared at him as he removed the handcuff key from his pocket and freed her from the restraints. "Less than half a cup of coffee. Was that worth the trouble of the cuffs?" she snapped.
"Keeping you under control is worth any amount of trouble. Now behave," he ordered, giving her a look that said he meant business.
"Bite me," she returned as she got to her feet.
Bridget coughed, but the sound was suspiciously like a laugh.
His eyes narrowed. "If I were you, I wouldn't mention the word 'bite,'" he advised as he took her arm.
Bridget went into the bedroom, and returned with a pair of orange life jackets that had been stored in the closet. She said, "When the alarm sounds, take the PFDs and report to Muster Station Three. Directions are on the back of the door."
Jenner hadn't had enough coffee, and she was starving. She would much rather call room service and get some food, instead of reporting to any Muster Station. "We can't play hooky?"
"No," Bridget replied. "Lifeboat drills at sea are a serious matter. They have to take place within twenty-four hours of sailing. Roll will be called, and anyone missing will be tracked down and instructed to report to the appropriate Muster Station."
"And we aren't going to do anything to draw attention to this suite, are we?" Cael asked in the insufferable tone of an adult dictating to a wayward child.
"What if someone comes in to clean the suite and finds all your toys?" she taunted.
"They won't," said Bridget. "This suite is my responsibility. Pay attention to what you're doing, and leave my job to me." Cael caught her eye, she nodded briefly, and left.
"What was that about?" Jenner asked.
"Nothing you need to know."
"Do I need to know what a PFD is? It sounds sexually transmitted."
"Personal Flotation Device." He nodded toward the orange life vests. "When the drill starts, don't get any ideas … about anything. All rules still apply and they will until we get back to San Diego. You do exactly as I say when I say it."
"Yeah, yeah," she said.
The alarm brought an end to that particular exchange, and was followed by a calm voice over the shipwide intercom. Cael picked up the life jackets – PFDs – that Bridget had placed over a chair, and tossed one to Jenner. He paused to take a quick look at the map on the back of the door, where there were simple directions to Muster Station Three.
"Smile, sweetheart," he said as he took Jenner's arm and ushered her into the passageway, where they immediately ran into two older ladies who were grinning as they exited the stateroom across from them. Evidently a lifeboat drill was a lot of fun to some people, Jenner thought. Personally, she'd rather be cozied up to breakfast – or lunch. She was so hungry she didn't care which.
The ladies were dressed in casual cruise wear, including straw hats, walking shorts, deck shoes, and their bright orange PFDs. One was tall and slim to the point of being bony; the other was short and stocky. Together, they were wearing enough diamonds to open their own jewelry store.
"We're going to Muster Station Three," the tall one said. "I assume you two are headed in the same direction?"
"We are," said Cael, smiling at them. Jenner wanted to kick him, because that smile was warm and genuine and made him look entirely too human.
"I'm Linda Vale," said the tall lady.
"Nyna Phillips," the other lady added, her smile a little shy. She had a really sweet face.
"I'm Cael Traylor, and this is my friend, Jenner Redwine."
"Pleased to meet you," said Linda Vale. "We were in the Fog Bank bar last night. That must have been very distressing for you. I'm glad things worked out."
Nyna winked at Jenner. "If I were twenty years younger, I'd have been bumping you out of the way."
"Bump away," said Jenner cheerfully.
The two ladies laughed, thinking she was joking. Cael squeezed her arm, giving her the silent message to behave, or else.
She gave him a smile as dazzling as she could make it. "Just kidding. He's a gem, a man among men, a real prize. He stepped into my trap, and he's mine now. There's no escape."
All three women laughed. Cael slanted a look down at her that promised retribution.
"We should have dinner together one night," suggested Linda.
"I'd love to," Jenner said, too enthusiastically. Cael gave her arm another squeeze, one she interpreted to mean that she wasn't here to make new friends or do a lot of socializing. As far as he was concerned, she was here for one thing and one thing only, and that was to provide cover for him. If he thought he could keep her locked in the suite for the entire time, then he was in for a rude awakening.
"Ladies, we should be moving," Cael prompted, because neither Jenner nor the two older women seemed inclined to do anything other than stand there and talk.
"Do we take a left?" Linda asked, her expression confused as she looked first one way and then the other down the passageway.
"Yes, ma'am, you do," he said, holding out his hand to indicate they precede him.
"I'll take your word for it," she said as they began walking down the passageway. "I usually have a good sense of direction, but so far this ship has me completely confounded. If we really needed to get on a lifeboat, then I'd better have an angel on my shoulder whispering in my ear and telling me how to get there, or I'll never make it."
Behind them another door opened. Cael glanced briefly over his shoulder at the sound, and Jenner did likewise, driven by nothing more than simple curiosity. Two men exited the suite with the double doors, PFDs in hand, and followed them down the hallway. It only made sense that they would all be at the same Muster Station.
One of the men behind them had the look of a sentient tank. He was just medium height, but so powerfully built he looked almost as wide as he was tall. His hair was so blond it was almost cotton white, and cropped very close to his head. He had restless eyes that continuously swept forward and back, noting anything and everything around him. Hired muscle, Jenner thought, but smart hired muscle.
So the target of Cael's surveillance must be the other man. He looked fiftyish, with graying hair, but toned and fit, with a tan of the particular hue that said it was the best tan money could buy. She didn't have time to see more than that, because Cael hustled her forward with more speed than grace.
"Hurry," he said. "We shouldn't be late." Linda Vale and Nyna Phillips obediently picked up their paces, too, though Jenner was pretty sure he hadn't been talking to the older ladies.
He didn't want her anywhere near the man, Jenner realized. She still didn't know who he was, but at least she knew what he looked like.
"So," she whispered conversationally, "that's him?"
"Not your concern."
"You made it my concern, numb-nuts."
He slanted a glittering blue glance down at her. "It'll be a miracle if we make it to Hawaii without you getting tossed overboard."
THE LIFEBOAT DRILL WAS UNEXCITING. All Jenner learned about escaping from a sinking ship was how to put on her PFD, and where to go in case of an emergency, though she supposed that was basically all she needed to know. She'd have liked to see a lifeboat actually launched, but when she thought about it realized the difficulty involved in getting the lifeboat back in place, considering they were secured to the ship at least two stories up from the water line, maybe even more, and the ship was cutting through the ocean at a pretty fast clip. Being inside one of those suckers when it was launched was probably a trip, too, one she hoped she never took.
The man who had come out of the double-door suite was sitting two tables over from them at the Muster Station, which was actually one of the indoor cafes. Cael tried to position his chair so he was blocking her view, but he was thwarted by Nyna Phillips, who pointed toward the man and said, "That's one of the co-owners of the ship. He's hosting the Cruise for Charity, so we'll probably see more of him than we will of the captain."
"Really?" asked Jenner, delighted by this opening. "I had no idea that's who he is. What's his name?"
Nyna thought for a moment. "I'm sure I heard, but I can't recall. Memory's the second thing to go, you know."
"What's the first?" Linda Vale asked, leaning forward with a grin that said she expected something salacious.
"I don't remember," said Nyna, completely deadpan, and they both burst into laughter.
As soon as the drill was concluded, the gray-haired man and his bodyguard disappeared. Jenner forestalled being hustled back to the suite and handcuffed to a table or chair by exclaiming how hungry she was, and inviting both Linda and Nyna to eat lunch with them on the Lido deck, in one of the outdoor cafes. The two women accepted with pleasure, and Cael had no choice but to go along, though the look he gave Jenner when the other two weren't looking said he wasn't taking this lightly. He fished his cell phone out of his pocket, called someone, and spoke very briefly before closing the phone.
The outdoor cafes were buffet-style so lunch was very casual. Jenner sucked down some more coffee, ate enough to make up for not having had breakfast, and in general did everything she could to postpone going back to the suite. Linda and Nyna, however, soon excused themselves because of some classes they'd signed up for. Jenner watched them walk away, giving a little sigh of regret. She wished they could have stayed longer. Not only did they seem genuinely good-hearted, now she was once again alone with Cael.
Despite his reluctance to have lunch, now that it was over he didn't seem to be in any great hurry to return to the suite. He lounged in his chair, somehow managing to look elegant, indolent, and dangerous all at the same time. For all his surface sophistication, there was something predatory about him that lingered just below that layer of gloss. He was the type of man women noticed, she thought again, but not just women. She caught several men, perhaps more aware than others, giving him slightly wary, sidelong glances as if they wanted to make certain they knew exactly where he was.
Suddenly she got it. He wanted to be seen. Specifically, he wanted to be seen with her. He was cementing the idea of them as a couple, and she had promised to cooperate fully.
"Let's go for a walk," she said, standing and holding out her hand to him. "I could use the exercise after being so tied up this morning."
That blue gaze lashed her as he took her hand and stood, then slid his other hand around her waist and turned her toward the railing. "You're living dangerously, Redwine," he murmured, just loud enough for her to hear.
She smiled, turning her face up to him as if he was flirting with her. "Relax, big boy." She kept her voice as low as his. "You still hold all the cards, except for one. We'll go for a simple walk, and you can use the opportunity to show everyone how nuts we are for each other."
His arm remained around her waist as they strolled along the railing. Jenner lifted her face to the sun, trying to will herself to turn her mind off and relax for a moment. This is the first full day of a two-week cruise; she would be with Cael, under his control, for another thirteen days, and if she didn't find some way of dealing with the stress she'd crack under the strain. She would talk to Syd every day and that way they would both be reassured that the other was still alive, but she also needed some respite from constantly worrying at the situation like a dog going at a bone.
She forced herself to look around at the ship. From the moment she'd first set foot onboard yesterday afternoon, she'd been too preoccupied to pay much attention to her surroundings. The Silver Mist was supposed to be something special, as far as ships go, and she wanted to take a look at her.
As Bridget had said, the Lido deck was the fun deck. People clustered around and in the pools, and teak deck chairs seemed to cover every square inch. Some sort of game was going on by one of the pools, and the sound system boosted the emcee's voice to an almost painful volume. Cael winced and turned Jenner in the opposite direction, and for once she was glad to follow his unspoken instructions.
If it hadn't been for Cael's presence, she thought, Syd would have been right: She'd have enjoyed the cruise. She did love the ocean. She'd become accustomed to its presence over the past seven years, but the gray-green Atlantic was nothing like the vibrant colors of the Pacific. The deep water was a gorgeous navy blue, but every so often the light would change and she'd catch a glimpse of aqua and turquoise. With no land in sight, the sensation was of being alone in the world – if being with about a thousand other people could be called "alone" – on a bright and pristine floating city.
She could smell the newness of the ship, she realized. It was everything: the paint, the carpet, the upholstery, even the wood of the deck. Everything was new and fresh, and under different circumstances she'd have loved it.
Cael's arm remained around her waist, the heavy weight a constant reminder to behave. To anyone watching, of course, they would look like new lovers, enthralled with exploring this strange and exciting connection they'd found. Only Jenner knew that his grip was a bit too tight, and she blew out a small sigh of frustration. Where the hell did he think she was going to go if she ran? They were on a ship, for God's sake. It wasn't as if she could jack a car and escape. Besides, as he so often reminded her, there was Syd.
He probably heard the sigh, because he snuggled her closer and bent his head to kiss her temple, then settled his mouth close to her ear. "Make it look good."
She turned her head, dipped her chin. "I'm too scared," she said, putting a little whine in her voice and managing not to snort. She had been terrified … but she wasn't now. Odd. Maybe the body and mind could handle terror for only so long, then some sort of coping mechanism kicked in and held the terror at a distance.
He did snort. "Bullshit. You don't scare worth a damn. So act as if you love me, honey, because otherwise there's no point in having you out here and I'll drag you back to the suite. Do you want to spend the rest of the cruise handcuffed to a chair?"
She definitely didn't, so she angled her shoulder toward him and smiled up at him. Only he could see, so she fluttered her eyelashes at him like some nitwit overwhelmed by his testosterone. He needed her out here, she thought. Maybe he could explain away her absence from the many shipboard activities that most of the passengers were already taking advantage of, and maybe no one would think anything of it if she didn't attend any of the formal dinners or auctions, the events that were the whole purpose of this Cruise for Charity. Maybe he could make these people believe that she'd throw all sense to the wind to take up with him, even though she wasn't known for mindless, reckless affairs.
Most of the people onboard ship didn't know her, but enough of them did that he couldn't make her all but disappear for two weeks without questions being raised. He had to let her out of the stateroom, he had to allow people to see her, talk to her. She had to attend the scheduled events.
Too bad she couldn't think of a way to use the exposure to her advantage. She was surrounded by people, but if she screamed for help … then what? She'd look as if she'd gone insane, because Cael hadn't done anything in front of anyone that would make anyone look at him with doubt. He'd been charming to Linda and Nyna, attentive to her, and from the way he was looking down at her the casual observer would think he was downright besotted.
And if she screamed for help, what would happen to Syd?
Because she couldn't see any way out of the situation, she turned her thoughts instead to why. He'd gone to a lot of trouble for a peek and a listen into someone's stateroom. She didn't know the name of the man in the next suite, but if he was a co-owner of the ship then he was very wealthy, because ships like this had to cost billions and billions of dollars to build and outfit. So, in the real world, wealth equaled influence. Who was he? What were they trying to find out about him? Maybe he had a kinky lifestyle and they were trying to get pictures for some sort of blackmail scheme. That scenario kind of worked for her, except for the way they were going about it. Having an entire team of people aboard a cruise ship like this had to have cost a small fortune, then add in the expenses of the team that had snatched Syd.
That led her back to spies. Industrial espionage. But that usually involved theft of data, or even the actual hard product, so what were they doing here spending so much time watching a man on a cruise?
No matter which angle she considered, this still didn't make sense to her. Whatever Cael and his people were planning, there had to be better ways to get it done, though from what she'd seen they were so well-organized that if there was a better way she imagined they would've found it. So, what the hell was going on?
The threat to Syd had her effectively bound, restricting what she could and couldn't do. Not that Cael was going to leave her unsupervised or unbound, but he could, and she wouldn't do a damn thing to take advantage of being free, because of Syd. One phone call from Cael or any of his people, and Syd could be in serious trouble. No matter what, Jenner thought, because of Syd she had to play along.
She took Cael by surprise, turning out of his grip, leaning back against the deck rail and facing him with her feet firmly planted, her gaze narrow and intent. "Tell me what you're up to."
"No." His response was immediate and flat, no room for negotiation, no thinking about it.
"I can't figure it out – "
"You aren't supposed to figure anything out, you're supposed to do as you're told and keep your mouth shut." He slid his hand over her arm, a movement that looked like a caress, except for the way his fingers clamped around her elbow. "That's enough face time. Let's go."
"I'm not ready to go." She wanted to stand there and argue with him, maybe dig a detail or two out of that stone wall.
He leaned in, too close, too warm, too big. His mouth moved against her cheek. "I swear to God, I'll throw you over my shoulder and carry you back to the room, and just think what a show that'll be for the other guests. Then I'll cuff you hand and foot to the chair, and you won't get out of the room again until the cruise is over. I can do this without you, Redwine."
Her heart thumped, she couldn't take a deep breath, and still, she saw the truth, knew it deep in her bones. "No, you can't. If you could, you never would have involved me at all."
"Watch me." He wrapped an arm around her waist again, pulled her away from the rail, began to lift her.
"Wait!" Putting on an act was one thing, but making a spectacle was another. And he'd do it; he'd really throw her over his shoulder and carry her off, and most people would grin, thinking they knew exactly what would happen when he got her to a private place.
He stopped. Her body rested against his, but wasn't being crushed. Anyone watching would think it an embrace between lovers, rather than a threat, but she could see into those cool blue eyes and knew he wasn't bluffing.
Her heartbeat got even faster, harder. Something about his eyes pulled her in, sucked her into heightened awareness of him on a physical level. She fought to keep her expression blank, to not let him know he was getting to her. Damn it, she shouldn't be affected by his touch, by being pressed against that tall, muscled body, but she was. He should be physically repulsive to her, and the fact that the opposite was true told her she'd have to resist just that much more, build her wall even higher.
He was waiting for her to say something, and she wrenched her thoughts back in order. What was …? Oh, yeah. She'd told him to wait.
She took a deep breath. "You don't have to carry me," she said. "I'll go peaceably, Marshal."
One corner of his mouth twitched. "Good." He eased her down and slightly back, but he didn't release her.
The wind blew her hair across her eyes and she pushed it back as she looked up at him. "But maybe you could do me a favor and let up a bit. In case you haven't noticed, we're on a ship, in the middle of the Pacific. I have nowhere to go, except overboard, and I'm not crazy. I don't want to do anything that will cause Syd to get hurt. As long as you have her, I'm going to play along. Maybe it makes you feel more in control to keep a steel grip on my arm, but it isn't necessary. If I have to be a part of this, then it'll play better if I don't look like a prisoner."
He took a moment to consider, then said, "That sounds reasonable." Just as Jenner began to relax, he added, "But this is you we're talking about, so 'reasonable' makes me suspicious."
Frustrated, she went on tiptoe and put her lips to his ear. He immediately tensed and gripped her waist with both hands, as if he were ready to chuck her overboard if she bit him again. He just might do it, too. She caught his earlobe with her teeth and very gently tugged, then released. "You're such an asshole," she whispered as lovingly as possible. "Somehow, some day, I'm going to make you pay for this."
He slid one hand downward and patted her ass. "I don't doubt it for a minute."