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Burn (Chapter Thirty-four)

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THE NIGHT WAS LIT BY THE RAGING FIRE THAT CONSUMED the listing Silver Mist. Soon it was obvious that no one could possibly be left alive on the ship. No one could've survived the blasts and the resulting fire that swept through the boat so quickly.

Cael sat and watched the red reflections dance on the ocean's black surface. He was silent, furious … and deeply grateful that he and so many of the others had made it off that damn ship. Jenner sat next to him as the lifeboat rocked gently her head resting on his shoulder, her arm around his waist. They held each other. Tears dripped down her face, tears for Bridget, as Matt explained how he'd looked for her, how he'd stumbled across so many bodies in the areas damaged by the initial blasts.

Ryan searched the boats for Faith, who was easy to spot, even at a good distance, with the emergency lighting on each boat. She was standing, as Ryan was, searching for him. When she saw her husband Faith waved, blew a kiss, and then sat. Even from a distance Cael saw Faith then drop her head in her hands and sob – in relief, in pain, in sorrow.

Tiffany and Sanchez were comparing weapons, but he could see that it was a defense mechanism, as they were both strongly affected by all they'd seen but were reluctant to let their feelings show. After telling them about Bridget, usually happy-go-lucky Matt sat alone with his head down, silent.

A couple of crew members eventually fell asleep in the lifeboat, exhausted.

Jenner watched them all. She looked around at the people she'd come to know so well. If it hadn't been for them, the carnage would have been a lot worse. They had found out what Larkin was up to, they'd started the evacuation early, and, ignoring the danger to themselves, they had set about finding and disarming as many of the bombs as possible, as well as tracking Larkin down.

She'd spent six years trying to blend in with the Palm Beach crowd, but it wasn't happening – not because of anything they did, but because of something inside herself. She'd been looking for the place where she fit, and Palm Beach wasn't it. Why else did she change her hair color so often? Subconsciously, maybe, she'd thought that if she changed herself enough she would find the Jenner who belonged.

Screw that. She wasn't going back. She knew where she belonged now.

She looked up at Cael and said, "I want to do what you do."

It wasn't easy to rattle Cael Traylor, but she'd succeeded with that one. His eyebrows went up, then snapped down as he frowned at her. "What? You're not serious – "

"I am." She sat up, her gaze steady in her sooty face. "I took judo lessons awhile back; I'm not very good, but I can always go back for more training. And I'm really good at skeet shooting so picking up how to shoot a different type of weapon shouldn't be all that difficult. As to whatever else I need to know … I'm willing to learn."

"Sweetheart, you don't – " He sighed. "I do surveillance, that's all."

She pointed toward what was left of the Silver Mist. "Surveillance, huh?"

Cael's gaze remained on the burning ship for a long moment. Bridget's body was in there somewhere, as were a number of passengers and crew.

"If you hadn't been here," Jenner said, "if you hadn't kidnapped me and Syd and set up your surveillance, all these people would be dead. Syd and I would be dead. Frank Larkin would've gotten exactly what he wanted."

Cael couldn't imagine a world without Jenner Redwine in it. So soon, so strongly, she was necessary.

"Teach me," she whispered.

"We'll see."

She sighed and snuggled more closely against him. "That'll do, for now." She was silent for a while, thoughtful – or else dozing – and then she asked, "Do you have a boat?"

"No."

"Good." She gave another sigh that sounded like a breath of relief.

A short while later he heard it … the unmistakable sound of a helicopter, most likely a Coast Guard rescue helicopter, headed their way.

There was one other thing, something she had to get out of the way now. "I'm really rich, you know," Jenner confessed in a lowered voice. "Buy-a-small-country kind of rich."

He thought it was an odd thing to say. "I know. So? I'm not in the market for a small country."

"Some men get weird about it, that's all."

"I don't care about your money," he said honestly. "Besides, I have enough for us. Give it all away, burn it, save it for the kids …"

He probably shouldn't have said that yet, but when he looked down at Jenner she was smiling, so maybe it wasn't too soon, after all.

JENNER WAS WEARING someone else's pants, which were held up with an oversize belt and rolled up at the cuff so they wouldn't drag on the ground, and an oversized Coast Guard T-shirt. The flip-flops on her feet were unadorned, had no arch support, and were borrowed. She hadn't slept in thirty-six hours or so, and her makeup was at the bottom of the Pacific – or ash in the air above it. She felt like crap, she looked like crap, but Cael didn't seem to care. Syd certainly didn't.

Syd squealed and ran toward Jenner, leaving her three guards standing on the shady front porch without looking back, running down the sidewalk with long, anxious strides. Jenner wondered if Cael had chosen this isolated spot, a small house well outside the city limits of San Diego, in case she and Syd decided to join forces and retaliate in spite of everything that had been said since they'd sailed away from the Silver Mist. She wasn't going to do anything that might be considered retaliatory, and Syd, well, it was definitely unlikely.

With open arms, Jenner met Syd near the middle of the long sidewalk. They hugged. They hugged for a long, long time.

Still holding on tight, Syd said, "Oh, Jenner, I was so worried … and then I saw the news about the ship and I didn't know if you'd survived or not and I just lost it … and I slapped Adam because he was standing right there, and I had to hit someone or something, but he didn't hit me back, which I guess was pretty nice if you think about it … and then I tried to run but he wouldn't let me and … and … they made me pay for my own kidnapping, which is really just wrong." She sighed deeply, wiped her eyes, and finally said, "Are you really okay?"

Jenner held Syd tight. "I'm fine. Well, maybe not entirely fine yet, but I will be." Her emotions were in turmoil. She'd found Cael, but had lost a friend in Linda Vale, who had not been in one of the lifeboats as Jenner had assured Nyna she would be, and in Bridget, who had died trying to save others. Penny and Buttons had been reunited with Nyna aboard a freighter that had responded to the rescue call, but so many others had been lost.

There still wasn't an accurate death toll, but it looked as if well more than three hundred people had perished with Frank Larkin, which was far short of what he'd planned yet still a terrible tragedy.

Syd let Jenner go and pinned her gaze on Cael. She didn't know his name, but she still knew who he was. He was the one behind all of this. Her eyes narrowed. "And you, you kidnapped us, you threatened us, and …" she faltered, obviously thinking better of saying too much before she was truly away from her kidnappers. Her lips trembled and she quickly controlled them. "You just wait. You'll get yours," she added in a low voice.

Jenner put an arm around Syd and led her toward Cael, who had given her some distance for the reunion with her friend. "Syd, this is Cael Traylor. Cael, Sydney Hazlett." She really did want the two most important people in her world, the two people she loved most, to get along. All things considered, it might take awhile.

Cael seemed cautious. Maybe she should tell him that Syd didn't bite.

Nah. Let him worry.

"I'll reimburse you for all the bills that were incurred while you were with us," he said, his voice businesslike and kind.

Syd looked at Jenner, her eyes widening. "He makes it sound like I had a bad vacation and am asking for a refund."

"I know. He annoys the shit out of me, too," Jenner said. She leaned in and whispered, "But don't worry, he's one of the good guys." She winked at him. "He's my good guy."

Five weeks later

Kyle Quillin nearly jumped out of his skin when the doorbell rang. Ever since that nut Frank Larkin had blown himself up, Kyle had been waiting for someone to show up at his door. Had Larkin confessed before he'd died? Had he given anyone the name of the weapons designer who was putting together the revolutionary EMP weapon?

He'd changed his e-mail address, moved the money he'd been paid three times, from overseas account to overseas account, and he'd quit his job with the defense contractor who didn't pay him shit. He was weeks away from finishing the weapon – weeks! So far, no one had connected him with Larkin, and still, he worried that something, somehow, would lead to him.

Kyle looked through the peephole and was relieved to see a pretty redhead standing on his doorstep. No police, no men in dark suits and sunglasses. He opened the door. The woman on his doorstep had spiky red hair, and was dressed in a skimpy tank top and shorts. She was jumping up and down, just a little.

"I'm sorry to bother you," she said, "but my husband and I are helping my sister move into the house across the street, and naturally she didn't get the water turned on, and I have to pee."

"There's a gas station …"

"I can't wait," she interrupted. "No way will I make it back to that gas station. Pleeease."

Kyle looked across the street, where two men were unloading a moving van, while a gorgeous, stacked, eye-catching black-haired woman stood with her backside resting against a car as she watched the proceedings without lifting a finger.

"That's your sister, and she's moving in across the street?" Wow, this was his lucky day. Most of his neighbors were retired, or married with annoying kids and dogs that crapped in his yard.

"Yep, that's Tiffany." The redhead offered her hand. "I'm Jenner. Jenner Traylor." She lifted her eyebrows in silent question.

"Kyle Quillin." He shook her hand briefly.

"Nice to meet you, Kyle," Jenner said. "You'll probably be seeing me and my husband around for a few days as we get Tiffy settled." She rolled her eyes. "God forbid she should have to get her own water and power turned on." Again, she jumped up and down. "Bathroom?"

"Sure." Kyle stepped back and let the Traylor woman into the house. He pointed. "Down the hall, first door on the right." His eyes stayed on her sister for a moment, until Jenner got his attention as she stumbled, squealed, and caught herself by grabbing the bookshelf.

"I'm such a klutz," she said with a laugh, as she disappeared into the hallway.

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