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Burn (Chapter Ten)

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IF THERE WAS ONE THING JENNER DISLIKED, IT WAS someone telling her to do what she was told. Anger began to boil in her veins. She'd been away from the tough streets of Chicago for a long time, but the old instincts remained. Her eyes narrowed and her chin lowered even as she took a step back to better assess her enemy.

"Don't try it," Bridget gently advised. "I can take you without breaking a sweat."

Now that she had a good look at her, Jenner had to admit that was probably true. She herself was in good shape, but Bridget's solid muscles showed under her trim uniform. Jenner had often wished for bigger boobs, but right now she didn't give a damn about boobs, she wanted big muscles to go with those judo classes she'd taken.

The bad thing was, Bridget probably had more training than some classes that taught basic self-defense. And even more than muscles, she had something else: Sydney. Just the thought of her friend being held by people, whoever they were, was enough to squelch Jenner's almost overwhelming urge to fight fast, fight dirty, and scream her head off at the same time.

Nevertheless, she was compelled to say, "If Syd is hurt in any way, I'll hunt you to the ends of the earth." Maybe that wasn't the smartest thing to say to someone who held all the cards, but she meant it, and the absolute truth of that glittered in her eyes – for all the good it did.

"Whether or not she's hurt is completely up to you, and how good an actress you are," Bridget returned, unperturbed.

Actress? They thought she was an actress? What was going on? She'd fallen down the rabbit hole, Jenner thought, looking around the room for clarification, because, once again, what she'd heard didn't make sense. "I'm not an actress," she said, bewildered. "Do you have me mixed up with someone else?" That was far-fetched, but actresses did tend to be blond and skinny, and she was both permanently skinny and temporarily blond, so at least the possibility existed. "I'm Jenner Redwine. I've never acted in anything in my life!"

"Then you'll need to learn fast," said Bridget. "And there's no mix-up. I wish we didn't have to do this, but circumstances changed" – she shrugged, as if to say what can you do? – "and here we are. So have a seat, Ms. Redwine, and I'll tell you what we want from you."

Jenner didn't see that she had a choice, but it still galled her to have to do as directed, which was proof that she never had been and never would be any kind of actress, good or bad. She sat down on the curved gold damask sofa, her expression mutinous and her eyes still flashing a promise of retribution.

Bridget sighed. "Better Cael than me," she murmured, half under her breath.

"What? Who?" Jenner demanded, having caught only half of that.

Bridget sat, also, which Jenner thought was probably against all sorts of steward rules, but hell, she obviously wasn't a real steward, she was involved in a kidnapping, so why would she care about a little rule like not sitting down in one of the staterooms? "First," she began, "there are several of us onboard, and, no, I'm not going to tell you who everyone is. You'll meet a few of us, but there are more. You'll be watched at all times."

Clever, Jenner thought. She had no way of knowing if that were true or not, if she was being watched by unknown people, or if Bridget was saying that just to keep her in line. Either way, she'd have to assume the statement was true, because Syd's life hung in the balance.

Her doubt and frustration must have shown on her face, because Bridget sighed again. "Don't overthink it, just go with what I tell you."

"Yeah," Jenner said with heavy irony. "Because you're so trustworthy."

Bridget's lips tightened a little, but her tone remained calm. "Whether or not I'm trustworthy has nothing to do with the situation."

That was interesting, Jenner thought. A kidnapper who cared what the victim thought about her? She mentally filed that little tidbit away. Right now, Bridget and whoever was helping her had the upper hand, but every bit of information Jenner could glean might eventually come in handy. She might be able to play one of them against the other. But so what if she did? How would that change Sydney's situation, except for the worse? It wouldn't. She had to remember that, not let her anger and natural resistance lead her to do something rash. She had to remember Sydney.

"The phone in here has been disabled," said Bridget, indicating the phone on the wall. "Likewise the phone in the bedroom. Feel free to check them if you don't believe me."

Believe her? Hah! Thinking how stupid she'd feel if she didn't check the phones and later found out Bridget had lied, Jenner promptly got to her feet and checked them both. They were corded phones, or they were supposed to have been, but both cords were gone, so, yes, the phones had definitely been disabled.

Bridget had silently followed her into the bedroom, watching her. "You're right," Jenner agreed, stating the obvious. "No phones." They were going to a lot of trouble to make certain she didn't contact anyone, despite holding Syd's safety over her head. Either they thought she might be stupid enough to do something that would endanger Syd, or they took no chances, period.

Bridget inclined her head in acknowledgment, then said, "Here's what's going to happen. The first night at sea, there's no formal dinner because everyone is too busy getting settled, but the casual restaurants and bars are open. You'll go out to eat alone. If anyone asks, Ms. Hazlett had to cancel at the last minute because of a stomach virus. In a day or so, she'll be allowed to call her father and tell him the same thing, in case someone here onboard sends an e-mail or text message to her father, asking if she's okay."

That meant they planned on Syd still being alive a couple of days from now, Jenner thought, and went cold at the realization that the exact opposite could so easily have been true.

"After you eat, go out to the Fog Bank, which is the aft bar on the Lido deck – "

"Where's aft?"

Bridget paused, as if she wasn't certain whether or not Jenner was pulling her leg.

"Look," Jenner said testily, "I've never been on a ship before. I intended to rely on Syd to lead me around until I got things figured out, but you screwed that up, so if you want me in a particular place at a particular time, it's up to you to get me there."

"Aft is the rear of the ship," replied Bridget with grim patience. "This suite is on the left side, the port side, of the ship. When you leave the room, turn right, and you'll be heading aft."

"Okay. Aft bar, Lido deck. Where's the Lido deck?"

"The elevator buttons are named instead of numbered, as I'm sure you noticed when you took the elevator up to this deck. The Lido deck is the fun deck. The top deck is usually the sports deck, and the second deck is the Lido. The Lido is where games are played – "

"How appropriate," Jenner murmured.

Bridget's jaw clenched ever so slightly. Her calm was beginning to show a few cracks. Still, she ignored Jenner's interruption and continued, "A couple will get into an argument. Their names are Cael and Tiffany. They're sharing a stateroom, but they'll break up, very publicly. Then he'll approach you, and it'll be love at first sight."

"Unlikely. I'm not the impulsive type. And I'm not known for picking up sleazoids."

"Pretend," Bridget said briefly, through clenched teeth.

"That I've suddenly lost all my common sense and taste? Ooookay."

"Oh, jeez," Bridget said under her breath. Then, more loudly, "Cael's a good-looking guy, so your taste won't come into question. He'll hit on you, and all you have to do is act smitten. He'll finesse the details, come back here with you, and from then on you're his headache, I hope."

"So he'll be my guard?" she asked warily. Being at a man's mercy made her uneasy, as it would any woman with an ounce of common sense.

Finally she'd asked a question that seemed to please Bridget, if her wide, bright, shark smile was any indication. "He's more than that. He's the boss. How healthy your friend stays depends entirely on how happy you make Cael."

THE BIG SHIP EASED AWAY from the dock, but Jenner missed the excitement of departure on her very first cruise because she was literally being held hostage in her own suite. Bridget had other duties to fulfill, but another woman had taken her place. This one called herself Faith. Whether or not that was her real name was anyone's guess. She was tall and slim, as classically lovely as Syd, and had the same sort of style – the one that screamed Old Money. Her thick brown hair fell in a perfectly cut swath down her back, and her discreet makeup emphasized her high cheekbones and large hazel eyes.

Over the years Jenner had learned how to recognize designer clothing, so she knew Faith was wearing Roberto Cavalli sandals that cost upward of eight hundred dollars. The diamonds in her bracelet, and the big solitaire nestled against her wedding ring, were genuine. Had she stolen them, or was she rich? And if she was rich, why was she involved with kidnappers?

Regardless of Faith's beauty, and her good taste in clothes and jewelry, she, too, had that very fit, toned look that said she worked out regularly. And even if she wasn't Bridget's equal in the ass-kicking department, so what? Jenner was still over a barrel, because of Syd.

Syd must be terrified. Where were they holding her? Had they hurt her, maybe slapped her around, to make her do what they wanted? The image of someone hitting sweet, vulnerable Sydney made Jenner tremble with rage. Syd had never harmed anyone. She had no idea how to fight, and emotionally she was defenseless against any type of violence.

Jenner wrenched her thoughts away from Syd, because otherwise she'd become so angry she couldn't think straight, not that she could anyway. Her thoughts seemed to spin in circles, as she asked herself the same questions over and over despite the complete lack of answers. Who were these people? What did they want? Evidently not money, because they weren't holding Syd for ransom. Instead, they were holding her as a means of forcing Jenner to do … what? Act as if she'd fallen in instant lust with this guy Cael? To what end?

Did they have some kind of long con going on? From bitter experience with her dad, she knew cons, knew how they worked. If this was a con, it wasn't like any she'd ever heard of before. Cons manipulated people into behaving in stupid ways, they didn't involve elaborate kidnapping schemes – that took the con into the realm of a federal offense.

So, no con was involved. To go to this much trouble and expense, and to have as many people involved in the game as they did, they were serious. She knew of at least four people on this ship – Bridget, Faith, and the unknown Cael and Tiffany – and she'd talked to one other man, the one who had Sydney. That was five people, at a minimum. Probably more than one person was with Syd. And if she believed Bridget, there were other people on the ship who wouldn't be identified to her, so she wouldn't know if she was being watched or not.

What terrified her was that they were letting her see their faces, giving her their names. The names could be fake, but their faces weren't. Did that mean they weren't worried about anything she might later tell the authorities? Maybe they didn't intend for her to return alive from this cruise. After she'd done what they wanted, all it would take was a simple tip over the balcony rail, and she'd be gone.

But what about everyone else aboard the ship? There were people here who knew her, knew Syd. If she was supposed to be carrying on a torrid shipboard romance with a man she'd just met, others would notice. She'd have to introduce him to people they encountered, so even more people would be able to describe him. Not only that, he'd gotten aboard by going through the same security procedures as everyone else. His photograph was in the facial recognition program. There was no way he could hope to get away, unless he destroyed the entire ship and everyone on it.

Recognizing how far she'd strayed from the shoreline of logic, Jenner mentally paddled back into shallow water. These people weren't on a suicide mission. They had a definite purpose, and they needed her to carry it out.

So … that meant she had an edge with them. They needed her. They'd gone to the extreme of kidnapping Syd to use as leverage against her, to make certain she did as they wanted. This probably meant they wouldn't hurt her, but Syd didn't have that protection.

She tried to think of some way, any way, that she could thwart them, but finally she had to admit that she was infuriatingly helpless. Jenner hated being helpless. She hated feeling vulnerable, not knowing what to do or where to turn. She hated this strange woman sitting in her suite and calmly reading the book she'd brought, paying no more attention to her than if she were a fly – less, even, because she'd at least have swatted at a fly.

Deciding she'd rather be swatted at than dismissed, Jenner got up and went to the balcony door.

"Please sit down," Faith said, her tone as courteous as if she were offering coffee or tea.

"I will," Jenner returned, "out on the balcony." Her heart thumped hard from the fear that they might take this out on Syd – could they have a severed pinkie finger, or ear, or any other body part, delivered to her at sea? – but this was nothing other than a small push to discover her boundaries. They had to realize that, if they actually did hurt Syd, they ran the risk of pushing Jenner so far she balked. This was a balancing act they were all engaging in, with neither side wanting to push the other into anything rash. She banked on that as she stepped out onto the balcony.

Warm, moist air wrapped around her. The movement of the ship created a breeze that kept the temperature pleasant. Going to the rail, she gripped it and leaned over just a little, looking to her left to see the sunlit coast of California and Mexico falling behind as the Silver Mist steadily moved southwest – more west than south – toward Hawaii. Even leaning out that little bit was enough to make her head swim, so she retreated to the deck chairs and sat down in the one farthest from the door, stretching out her legs and relaxing against the high chair back.

Faith followed her onto the balcony, bringing her book with her, and took the chair that was closest to the door, so Jenner would have to get past her if she tried to bolt. That had occurred to Jenner beforehand, so she'd deliberately chosen the one she had just to reassure her guard that she wasn't going to try anything stupid.

Being outside was calming, with nothing but the sea and sky surrounding them. She slipped off her shoes, feeling a little of the tension drain from her bones. The deck flooring was teak, with small cracks between the individual planks to allow the water to drain away. Other than the top railing, the balcony was enclosed only by panels of clear Plexiglas that didn't obstruct the view. White gulls wheeled and soared, shrieking as the silver giant plowed through the foam-topped waves that swirled with all shades of blues and greens. Under different circumstances, this would have been wonderful.

As far as she could tell, there was no one on the balconies on either side of them, though she supposed it was always possible someone could be quietly reading as Faith was doing, or even napping. This early into the cruise, though, most people were likely exploring the gorgeous new ship or meeting up with friends, or both.

"Tell me about him," she prompted, meaning this guy she was supposed to hook up with.

Faith looked up from her book, frowning a little as she glanced in both directions before shaking her head in refusal. Even though she had to have made the same assessment that Jenner had made about the possibility they could be overheard, she wasn't willing to take the chance.

Raising her voice, Jenner shouted, "Hello, neighbor! Anyone there?"

Faith sat upright, looking alarmed, as if she was thinking about clapping a hand over Jenner's mouth and dragging her inside. But no one answered, not from either side, or even above or below, though Jenner didn't think sound carried well from those directions. From what she'd noticed so far, the ship was far quieter than she'd ever imagined it would be. Other than the sound of the ocean rushing by, she could hear only the deep, distant rumble of the powerful engines.

She lifted one shoulder in a careless shrug. "See? No one's there. You can talk."

"No," said Faith. "I can't. You'll find out soon enough." Nothing Jenner said budged the woman, though she gave it the old college try until Faith completely lost patience and ushered her back inside.

"Soon enough," as it turned out, was a little after nine that night. At seven, Faith had walked with her to the outdoor cafe on the Lido deck, where she smilingly introduced a tall, dark-haired man, who carried a cane and walked with a slight limp, as her husband, Ryan. Ryan had shaken Jenner's hand without even a hint that he was anything other than delighted to meet her, though of course he had to be one of Them. Okay, that made five people that she knew of.

Then Ryan and Faith had left her to eat alone. She went through the buffet line and had a plate filled with food she randomly indicated, without paying attention to what she was getting, then she sat at a small table close to the rail. She was acutely aware that she was being watched, by at least those two. Others would be watching her, Bridget had said, and she wouldn't know who they were.

The tension made it almost impossible for her to choke down any food, but she kept at it long after she'd lost any vestige of appetite. The longer she could put off going to the bar, the better. Despite what she'd asked Faith, she had no desire to meet this Cael person, didn't want to know anything about him. So she lingered over her dinner, then got dessert, a lemon mousse that was so light she didn't feel as if she were choking when she swallowed it. Under different circumstances she would have enjoyed it, but now it was just another delaying tactic.

When she couldn't put it off any longer, she asked one of the attendants to point her toward the aft bar, the Fog Bank, which turned out to be through a set of swinging doors directly behind her. She went through the doors and found much the same setup as the cafe: The bar itself was under a roof, but most of the tables were in the open air. A band was playing dance music, but not so loud that people had to shout to carry on a conversation, which was a nice change from the usual. The dance floor was crowded with both singly gyrating bodies and couples who were actually dancing together.

From the literature she'd read about the ship she knew there were several bars, but this one was humming with activity. Perhaps people were excited by the first night at sea, and no one wanted to be inside, which made the Lido deck the place to be. Stars were shining overhead, the ink-black ocean waves were gleaming with silver caps, and a brisk breeze tugged at hair and clothing. Even as tense as she was, Jenner felt something magical at being on the glowing ship surrounded by the vast, empty ocean. There were no other lights in sight in any direction, emphasizing how alone they were.

A single stool at the bar came empty, and Jenner squeezed onto it. There were so many people around she wondered how she was supposed to spot one particular couple, especially since she didn't know what they looked like. Well, that was their problem; they knew who she was, so it was up to them to get close enough to attract her attention. And maybe she'd make it even more difficult by keeping her back turned to the crowd.

The bartender smiled at her. "What can I get you?"

"A teeter-totter," she replied.

"Have you tried a Ghostwater yet? It's the ship's signature drink." He indicated the drink another of the trio of bartenders was handing across to a passenger; the liquid was a pale gray concoction, and wisps of what looked like fog rose from the tall, skinny glass.

"I'd pass on the Ghostwater, if I were you," a man advised from her left as he angled one broad shoulder in to the bar. "They pack a big punch. But I'll have one."

Jenner automatically looked up, because the man was seriously encroaching on her personal space, and found herself just a few inches from a pair of very blue, very intent eyes. For a split second time froze, her heartbeat thumped hard against her rib cage, and the bottom dropped out of her stomach. Hastily she looked down, breaking eye contact. He was so close she could feel his body heat, so close his hard chest was actually touching her shoulder; a belated alarm skittered along her nerve endings. She didn't like strangers touching her, didn't like the way she was being crowded, especially by a man as tall and powerfully built as this one. She tried to shift away, but the crowd around the bar was so dense she couldn't move without putting some muscle into shoving people.

"One teeter-totter and one Ghostwater, coming up," said the bartender, turning away to mix the drinks.

She stared straight ahead, unwilling to make eye contact again. Was he hitting on her, or was he just trying to get a drink at a crowded bar? Either way, she couldn't afford the distraction. Her field of vision was blocked on both sides now, so she couldn't see what was going on around her, and so many people were talking she wasn't certain she'd be able to tell if anyone was arguing. As soon as she got her drink she needed to move, find a more isolated corner.

"Are you here by yourself?" the man asked, and because they were so squashed together his voice was practically in her ear, his warm, pleasant breath brushing her cheek.

"No," she said, because she wasn't. At least four people were here with her, watching her, even though she was sitting alone. She still didn't look up at him again.

"Pity," he said. "Neither am I."

His voice had taken on a deep, warmly intimate undertone that, against her will, brought her gaze back up to his. The bottom dropped out of her stomach again. She had seen men who were better-looking, but damn if she'd ever seen one who oozed more masculinity than him. What was bewildering was that there was no one facet of his appearance that set him apart. He was tall, but not unusually so; muscled, but not muscle-bound; short dark hair, blue eyes, a hint of five o'clock shadow on a strong jaw. He was simply dressed, in black slacks and a white silk shirt with the sleeves rolled up on his forearms, and yet he seemed more elegant than any of the other men, who were no slouches in the dress department themselves. Taken as a whole, he was quite a package, and that had more to do with the aura that surrounded him than it did with any individual feature.

The bartender set their drinks in front of them. Relieved by the interruption, Jenner reached for her ship's card but the man beat her to it, handing over his card to the bartender and saying, "Both drinks."

"Sure thing."

Now she had to look up at him again, though she really, really didn't want to. She aimed her gaze at his nose, because those blue eyes were too unsettling. "Thank you." She kept her tone as neutral as possible.

"You're welcome," he said, reaching past her to accept his card back from the bartender. Just then the ship rolled slightly to the left, the first real movement she'd felt, but even as slight as it was that was still too much for a few people who had already had too much to drink. There was a commotion to the right, a yelp, then the man beside her was suddenly moving, both arms coming around her to brace against the bar as he shielded her with his body. He made a soft "oof" as someone landed against him, and for a moment he was crushed against her, his chest to her back, her head against his shoulder.

"Sorry," someone said, just as the man also said "Sorry," and straightened away from her.

"Damn you." It was a woman's voice, dripping with inebriated scorn and fury. "I saw that! You can't even get a drink without putting your hands on another woman."

Uncomfortably Jenner looked around. A curvy brunette with exotic sloe eyes was standing just behind them. She was overdressed in a skintight red cocktail dress that ended just a few inches below her ass, and she teetered precariously on five-inch heels, though whether that was because of the ship's movement or the amount of alcohol in her blood was anyone's guess. She was glaring at them, her chandelier earrings glittering as she tossed her head.

Jenner felt him sigh, felt the rise and fall of his chest. "You're drunk and you're making a scene," he said quietly. "Let's go back to the table."

The man who had initially stumbled looked around, blinking as he tried to make sense of the situation. He was sober enough to say, "No, that was my fault – "

"I know what I saw!" she said shrilly, dismissing him as she advanced closer to the man who had just saved Jenner from being knocked off her stool. "I don't know why you asked me along – "

"Neither do I." His tone was hard and grim. "But I regret it more every minute."

"That's easy to fix! Get your clothes and get out, you bastard." Her voice rose to a shriek of outrage, and tears began to melt her mascara into black rivulets running down her cheeks. More and more people were falling silent, turning to watch the scene, and Jenner began to feel as if she were caught in the middle of a train wreck with no way of escaping. She looked desperately around, hoping she could slip away.

He tilted his head, his expression turning hard. "I don't believe you can kick me out of my own stateroom, Tiffany, but I'll tell you what: I'll let you have the room, because I'd rather sleep in the laundry than spend another minute with you."

Tiffany!

Oh my God. Horrified awareness swept over Jenner like ice water. This was Cael.

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