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Burn (Chapter Nineteen)

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JENNER WOKE STILL IN A BAD MOOD. FOR THE SECOND day in a row she was alone in the bed, and she'd slept through the removal of the handcuffs when she hadn't even been able to retrieve the fricking key without waking Cael. He seemed to delight in proving to her again and again that she wasn't in control of even the smallest thing, that she was completely helpless. It had been a very long time since she had been dependent on anyone for anything, and she didn't like it at all. But, like it or not, Cael was forcing her to be dependent on him for everything until the cruise was over and she got off this damn ship.

The jackass was probably sitting out in the parlor, slugging down the last of the coffee and eating the last croissant, rather than waking her so she could eat, too. If he wasn't here, one of the others would be, to make certain she didn't poke her nose outside the suite without a guard by her side. She hoped he was gone, because dealing with Faith or Bridget would be easier right now than dealing with him.

She took her time showering, then dressed in one of her favorite outfits, cotton and silk blend teal capris with a skimpy white top trimmed in the same teal. Little sandals, which cost more than she used to earn in two weeks, decorated her feet. From her jewelry roll she took out platinum earrings, a couple of bracelets, and a tiny diamond toe ring. The outfit gave her confidence, because she knew she looked good in it. He wouldn't know it, but how she was dressing was a sort of flip-off to him. She was damned if she'd give up, damned if she'd try to fade into the background, damned if she'd be Miss Meek and Mild. Oh, she'd play along with him in public, because she had to – Remember Syd, she reminded herself – but in private … that was a different matter entirely.

She sailed out of the bedroom and found Cael seated at the dining table, a round pedestal table with four upholstered chairs grouped around it. A large oblong serving tray sat on the table, filled with coffee service and two covers. A mostly empty plate sat to his left, a cup of coffee to his right. Directly in front of him was the laptop, and his earbud was in place.

He looked up when she entered, tapped a command on the laptop, and removed the earbud. "Breakfast," he said, indicating the two round covers on the tray. "Still fairly warm. It was delivered while you were in the shower."

She didn't know which was worse, not having any breakfast, or having a breakfast that he'd ordered without consulting her. Opting for coffee first, she upended the second cream-colored porcelain cup – no polystyrene for the Silver Mist – and filled it with coffee. He watched in silence as she sipped appreciatively before lifting the covers to check out the food.

The ordinariness of the meal was a little disappointing: whole wheat toast, scrambled eggs, potatoes, bacon. She'd been expecting something disgusting, like cold oatmeal, or soft-boiled eggs. Oatmeal was okay when it was hot, but there was nothing that would ever make her like soft-boiled eggs, no matter how fancy the little utensils used to crack the egg and scoop out the contents. She wouldn't have put it past him to have burdened her with both cold oatmeal and a soft-boiled egg, but he'd surprised her. The plain old breakfast was almost a … peace offering?

"Have a seat," he invited genially, getting to his feet and pulling out a chair for her. She gave him a suspicious look as she sat down; she'd become accustomed to good manners, but she didn't expect courtesy from him. On the other hand, there was something … Continental about him, little things that were somehow different, like his clothing. As well as he dressed, her life was filled with people who dressed well, and expensively, so it wasn't that. It was more the cut of the clothing, the fluidity and drape that spoke of … Italy, maybe? His accent was pure American, but she couldn't identify the region. It was as if he'd traveled so much that his original accent had long since evolved into something more homogeneous.

"Where are you from?" she asked as she began buttering her toast.

He didn't answer, merely gave a half smile as if acknowledging her effort to dig information out of him.

"Not where you live now," she explained. "Originally." She started to add that she meant what area of the country he was from but at the last second some little frisson of instinct had her saying, "What country?"

His blue gaze lifted, and the smile was gone now. Bingo! She barely hid her sudden satisfaction; a blind thrust had hit home.

"What do you mean?" he asked softly.

It occurred to her that Cael Traylor could be a very dangerous man, that prying into his affairs might not be a smart thing to do. She was teasing the beast, just to show him that she wasn't some stupid pawn to be moved hither and yon at his whim. At least, she wasn't stupid, because right now she was definitely a pawn.

As casually as possible, she took a bite of toast. "Your accent. There's something about it – "

"Don't let your imagination run away with you," he said, leaning back in his chair. "I'm American."

Uh-huh. Sure.

Letting the subject drop, she devoted herself to breakfast. Despite the covers on the food, the eggs had gotten too cold for her to choke down, especially when he sat there watching her. The bacon and toast were tolerable, because even cold bacon and toast were pretty damn good, but with him sitting there watching every move she made, each bite became harder and harder to swallow. Finally she dropped the slice of toast on the plate and said, "Stop staring at me! I'm not a monkey in a zoo."

His mouth quirked. "Then there's no reason for me to duck?"

"I didn't say that." In fact, she wished she had something gross to throw at him. "Just … stop watching me. Don't you have something more important to do?"

"Nope."

Maybe going after the key last night hadn't been such a good idea, because he didn't seem inclined to cut her any slack. Continuing to eat was impossible, though, so she grumbled, "Show's over," and got up. She refilled her coffee cup from the carafe and took it out onto the balcony, not looking back to see if he was following but certain that he would.

She sat down in one of the deck chairs. She craved a moment alone, a precious sliver of time to take a deep breath and gather her wits about her, but he seemed determined not to allow her any more time alone than it took to shower and dress, take care of the necessities. Bathroom time was important, but she didn't want to spend hours in there. Besides, she was afraid that if she lingered in the shower too long he'd think she was up to something and walk in to check on her, to make sure she hadn't found a way to make poison out of mascara and shampoo, or something else even more heinous.

She didn't know what to make of Cael, and that bothered her. Normally she had pretty good people-instincts, but she couldn't make up her mind about him. He and the others were obviously spying on Mr. Larkin, whom at first glance she didn't care for but he might be one of those people who improved on acquaintance. The big question was, who was the bad guy: Cael, or Mr. Larkin? Or was there no good guy at all? Maybe there was bad, and badder.

Last night's revelation had confused her even more. Cael was maddening and annoying and bossy, unyielding, arrogant, and he'd had Syd kidnapped – some might even say he'd kidnapped her, too – but she wasn't afraid of him, as any right-minded woman should be. She'd been terrified at first, but over the course of two nights she'd lost that fear. If she'd been truly afraid, she never would have gone for the key. She wouldn't have been able to sleep a wink with him beside her. Then again, it wasn't as if her track record was flawless where men were concerned. There had been times in her life when hormones had knocked common sense and good instincts right out the window. It had happened before, and it could happen again, though no one had slipped under her guard since Dylan. She was older now, more wary. So had she lost her mind, or were her instincts telling her Cael was the good guy here – or at least not the worst?

She sighed as she stared out at the blue water, wishing she knew what was going on, hoping Syd wasn't frightened, wishing Cael would fall overboard, hoping she'd have a chance to help him over the railing … wishing and hoping, like the old song.

The balcony was private, or at least gave the illusion of privacy as there were floor-to-ceiling walls between this balcony and the ones on either side. In other circumstances, she might find the view and the fresh air a real pleasure, but these circumstances didn't leave room for even the simplest pleasure.

Her first cruise. And her last one, damn it. There was no way she'd ever willingly set foot aboard a ship again. She hated being in a position where she literally had nowhere to go.

She wasn't surprised when she heard the door onto the balcony open, and Cael step out. He sat in the other heavy lounge, stretching out his long legs. Taking a sip of his own coffee, he gazed out at the ocean much as she did. If she didn't know better, she'd think he was relaxed. No, he was relaxed, but he was still alert. She wondered if he ever truly let his guard down, if some part of him wasn't always on duty. Even now, on this protected balcony with nothing but the ocean in view, he was as watchful as if he thought an attack could materialize at any time.

After a moment, she realized that he did expect an attack –  from her. The thought amused her so much that her mood immediately lightened. What did he think she could do? The only way she could toss him overboard would be if he climbed on top of the railing first. She'd taken those judo classes, true, but she didn't think Cael would just stand there while she tried to remember how to flip him, then practiced her positioning and balance. Expert, she wasn't.

She got a great deal of pleasure imagining him tipping over the rail, though. He'd make a nice, big splash.

"Finish your coffee and come inside," he said, as if he'd read her thoughts. She wasn't trying to guard her expression, so maybe she'd looked unexpectedly gleeful.

Obviously he didn't trust her to even sit out here on the balcony alone, though what she could do or where she could go was a mystery.

The power between her and Cael was so out of balance – he, after all, had all the power – that it was frankly amazing she could get under his skin at all. He could crush her like a bug, and she'd have to let him. No matter what he wanted to do to her she had no way of stopping him. She couldn't hurt him, couldn't give him up to the shipboard authorities, couldn't foil his mysterious plans.

She could needle him, though, and take great delight in doing so – but not out here. She didn't know if Larkin was out on his balcony, sitting quietly, enjoying his morning coffee or his morning Ghostwater, listening to every word they said. She didn't know how well sound carried out here on the balconies. Other than that little while the first day, right after departure, she hadn't been out here.

She took a tiny sip of coffee. She wasn't about to gulp it down. In fact, this cup of coffee might last until lunchtime. Sweetly she asked, "What are our plans for today? Do you have anything in particular you're interested in?"

He put his cup down and stared at her as if she'd morphed into an alien. Jenner took great pleasure in indicating the direction of Larkin's balcony. In the spirit of cooperation she continued, "This weather is so great, though, it's almost tempting to stay right here all day."

Like velvet rubbing her skin, Cael said in that smooth, deep voice, "There's something I'm always interested in, sweetheart, and the balcony is fine with me."

SYDNEY TRIED HER BEST to relax, because being in a constant state of anxiety was eating at her to the point she could barely sleep or eat. Having a heart attack at this point wouldn't serve any purpose. In fact, it would defeat the purpose, which was to survive.

She stood at the window in her bedroom, staring out at the scenery. San Diego was a beautiful city, and she hoped she never saw it again. She was never visiting Caro again; assuming she survived, Caro could come to south Florida to visit her.

So far her captors hadn't shown any signs of violence – well, other than shoving a pistol in her side in the limo. The weapons remained, always in evidence unless a maid or room service person was in the suite. Her kidnappers never allowed her to be alone in the same room with any of the hotel employees. When the maid came, Syd was hustled to the other side of the suite, and she was always in her bedroom with one of the kidnappers when food was delivered to the parlor.

Other than the fact that she'd been kidnapped and frightened out of her wits, the kidnappers seemed concerned that they make this as comfortable for her as possible, which was so at odds with what she'd expected that she had no idea what to think. They'd made it plain, though: So long as she didn't give them any trouble, Jenner wouldn't be hurt. They didn't want money. She had no idea what the hell they did want.

Yesterday she'd talked to her father and explained that she'd missed the trip because of a particularly nasty stomach bug. After satisfying himself that she wasn't seriously ill, he'd suggested that she fly to Hawaii and join Jenner there as the Silver Mist sailed between the islands later in the week. Syd had told him that was a good idea, if she was over the bug she'd think about it. She'd also had to assure him again that her illness wasn't serious. It was a fine line, to convince her father that she was too sick to go on a cruise, but not so sick that she needed him to fly to San Diego, nor did she need to be in a hospital, and she didn't need for him to send someone to take care of her. All the while she talked to him, Kim watched and listened intently to make certain Syd didn't try to send any coded messages or something.

As if she knew how to send any coded messages.

Her lack of ability to do anything about this situation was frustrating. She knew how to put on a formal affair, how to coordinate outfits, how to juggle a thousand and one social obligations. Other than driving a car, however, she didn't have a single skill that could be considered useful – and even if she did, she probably wouldn't have the nerve to do anything, so the question was moot.

Being able to talk to Jenner had helped calm her nerves. Their two conversations hadn't lasted long, just long enough to reassure each other, but just hearing Jenner's voice and knowing she was all right gave her hope that they'd both see the end of this alive and well. Jenner's captors were letting her call, at an ungodly hour, which probably meant she'd been pestering them nonstop and they'd finally caved. She liked that scenario, because it meant that Jenner was winning, even if it was in something small.

Syd could even envision how Jenner had convinced them to let her call. Jenner didn't trust easily; just because they told her Syd was all right didn't mean Jenn would believe them, and she was perfectly capable of digging in her heels and refusing to cooperate unless they proved it, every day.

That was Jenn: not tough, but definitely prickly. She'd be frightened, but she'd get in there and fight anyway. In other words, almost the polar opposite of Syd herself, who had never fought for anything in her life.

She was suddenly ashamed of herself. She'd had all the benefits a life of comfort could provide. She'd never done without, never been threatened, had never been hungry – unless she was dieting – and still she'd let life walk all over her. She'd had a broken engagement because she'd found out the so-called love of her life had been more interested in her money than in her. Big deal. Jenner's life had been a lot tougher than that, and she hadn't let it cow her. Instead she sucked it up, and came out swinging.

Out in the parlor she heard a knock and a voice singsonging, "Room service!"

Within seconds, Kim slipped into the bedroom with her, and closed the door. Syd barely looked around from her stance at the window. Even if she had the nerve, she wouldn't raise the alarm, because of what the people who held Jenner might do to her. That was a good excuse to not be brave, but it was also true.

Kim stood listening until she heard the room service guy leave, then she said, "Lunch is here."

"So I heard," Syd said flatly, not exactly snapping but close to it. "What did you order for me?"

"A BLT." Kim hesitated. "If you want something else, just say so. We can order in a pizza, or Chinese, Mexican – whatever you want."

Wasn't that accommodating of them? The prisoner got to choose her food. She looked down at her hands as a thought occurred to her. Actually, yes, that was accommodating of them. Prisoners all over the world would like to be able to order any food they wanted. So why were her captors being so nice? Why were Jenner's captors letting her call every day?

Because they needed her. The answer slapped her in the face. How obvious could it be? They needed Jenn, and they were using Syd's safety to coerce her into doing whatever they wanted. Jenn, of course, had realized that, and was using their need for her in order to make demands of her own.

That worked both ways, didn't it? If Jenn wouldn't do what they wanted unless she was assured Syd was all right, then … what if she, Syd, refused to talk to Jenner unless she got some concessions, too? They'd want to keep her as happy as possible, so she'd continue talking and keeping Jenn in line.

The problem was, she didn't know at what point she and Jenn would become more trouble than they were worth.

She'd have to be careful. She wouldn't demand anything outrageous. She knew she couldn't just walk out of the suite any time she wanted, but, damn it, she wasn't going to cower in this room like a ninny.

"I want some books to read," she said. She'd brought one, thinking she and Jenn would be too busy with all the activities onboard for her to have much reading time, but she'd finished it the first day.

"Okay, fine," said Kim. "We'll get some."

"And I'm not hiding in the bedroom anymore," Syd continued. "Jenn won't do whatever it is you want unless she talks to me every day. And unless you back off, then I'm not going to talk to her."

With that she went into the bathroom to wash her hands before eating. Kim stared after her for a brief, befuddled moment, then she went out into the parlor where Adam and Dori were waiting. "Shit," she said softly, not wanting Sydney to hear. "She called our bluff."

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