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Burn (Chapter Twenty)

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ON THE THIRD NIGHT, AT THE CAPTAIN'S COCKTAIL party, where the ship's captain made himself available to the passengers, Jenner turned around and found herself face-to-face with Frank Larkin.

She'd been standing with Faith and Cael, making enough conversation to give the impression that she and Faith were at least friendly acquaintances, smiling enough at Cael to give another impression entirely. For once Cael didn't have a death grip on her elbow, mainly because he'd been forced to release her to shake hands with someone Faith introduced him to. Afterward she'd linked her arm through his, so he wouldn't suffer from anxiety and his issues with trust – namely a complete lack thereof. She had leaned against him very slightly, tilting her head to smile up at him, hugged his arm to her breasts. In short, she'd acted like a besotted fool.

The captain, Emilio Lamberti, was making an amusing little speech in a charming Italian accent, and they were listening to him. Half-listening, anyway. As it was at most cocktail parties, the din of conversation had died down only a little when he began speaking.

Then, in one of those almost-accidents that happen in crowds, Jenner heard a loud laugh somewhere behind her and automatically turned to see what was happening, at the same time Frank Larkin had abruptly decided to move from the spot nearby where he'd been most of the evening, which was why she and Cael and Faith had been stationed where they were, though only Faith had been turned so she could see him. He had stepped to the side to avoid someone who inadvertently moved into his path, Jenner turned, and they each stopped short of plowing into the other.

She felt the sudden tension in Cael's arm as he, too, turned around, but he couldn't move her away without being conspicuous about it. Without hesitation she laughed at the close call and held out her right hand. "Mr. Larkin, I've been wanting to meet you. I'm Jenner Redwine. We've seen each other in passing because I'm in the suite next to yours. Thank you so much for hosting the cruise. It's been absolutely marvelous, and of course it's helping so many worthwhile charities. The Silver Mist is a ship to be proud of. Have you always been interested in ships and sailing?" If there was anything she'd learned since moving to Palm Beach, it was how to bullshit with the best of them.

Larkin took her hand and shook it, clasping his other hand on top of hers as if to hold it in place. A practiced smile wreathed his face. "No, I've never been a sailor," he said genially. "The ship is an investment, but she's a beautiful one."

His hands were clammy, Jenner noticed. And … was there something wrong with one of his eyes? No, when she looked again, she couldn't see anything different about it, so it must have been a reflection from the crystal light fixtures overhead. On the other hand, there was no mistaking his expression, and she didn't like it.

Gently she withdrew her hand under the guise of making introductions, as she indicated Faith. "Have you met Faith Naterra?"

"We've met, very briefly," said Faith, smiling her lovely, charming smile as she, too, held out her hand. "But it's always nice to meet again."

"And this is my friend, Cael Traylor," said Jenner, because it would be too odd if she didn't introduce him when he was standing right there. The two men shook hands, said the appropriate things, then Cael slid his hand around her waist.

"Are you ready to leave, sweetheart?"

There was a warning glint in his eyes as he smiled down at her, but it wasn't needed. She had no intention of doing anything that would jeopardize whatever he was doing. "Yes, please."

"I was just about to leave, myself," said Larkin, but before he could say anything else the captain finished his little speech with a reference to Larkin, holding out his hand to indicate the host. Larkin had to smile and accept whatever compliment the captain had given, and Cael used the opportunity to steer Jenner out of the lounge, his hand moving from her waist to its customary grip on her elbow.

She was getting damned tired of being dragged around like a recalcitrant child. At the first opportunity she angled her body so no one could see what she was doing, then jerked her arm as she stooped to pretend she was picking up something from the floor. Cael had to release her arm or twist it out of place, as well as make it obvious to anyone behind them that he had a death grip on her. When she stood up, with a smile in place, she took his hand and laced their fingers together.

He slanted another of those warning glances down at her, but another couple was following them to the elevators so he couldn't say anything. Instead he lifted their clasped hands and brushed a kiss across her knuckles, then lightly bit.

The bottom dropped out of her stomach at the touch of his warm mouth.

Cold panic wound itself around her spine. She knew that feeling, knew what it meant. Damn it, she was not going to be that galactically stupid. Captive falling for captor was such a cliche, such a moronic thing to do. Not that she thought she was falling in love with him, but lust was something different, and could make a woman act just as dumb.

She'd been in almost constant contact with him since the first night on the ship. She'd fought with him, kissed him, slept beside him. She'd read once that a woman's pheromones were transmitted by air but a man's were transmitted by touch, in which case she had Cael Traylor's pheromones all over her, interfering with her thinking and making her want to get naked with him so he could transfer even more pheromones.

"I need a shower," she muttered to herself.

"He's slimy," Cael agreed absently as they stepped into the elevator. He held the door for the approaching couple, then punched the button for their deck.

Thank God he hadn't had any idea what she was thinking! Then she mentally paused, and rewound. That was the first thing any of them had let slip about Larkin, and it wasn't anything to do with why they were spying on him, but the comment was still telling. Cael thought Larkin was slimy.

Odd, because she hadn't liked him, either. Neither had she specifically disliked him, though she was inclined more toward that side of the fence, but he hadn't done anything to make her fall one way or the other. That said, there was something slightly off about him that made her want to keep her distance.

There were more implications in that simple, two-word sentence than she could immediately wrap her brain around. The first, most obvious one, was that if Cael thought Larkin was slimy, then he considered himself the good guy in whatever scenario they were working. The second one was, good guys didn't kill innocent hostages.

Maybe.

ONE OF THE ADVANTAGES of his cover was that no one thought twice if he and Jenner "retired" early in the evening.

Earbuds in place, Cael watched the monitors and listened. The button camera Matt had affixed to the plant container gave him a nice view of the parlor, where Larkin now stood alone. He'd returned to the suite not long after Cael had brought Jenner back. Faith and Ryan had had the honors of keeping track of him until then. Damn, he wished Jenner hadn't bumped into Larkin, because he didn't want to become too prominent on the bastard's radar, but the meeting had been accidental and unavoidable.

She'd handled herself well, far more smoothly than he'd expected. If he'd expected anything, it was that she would seize the opportunity to bust his chops, but she had been pitch-perfect in her response. She'd surprised the hell out of him, and scared him to death, too. Any time Jenner behaved, his instincts started screaming at him to watch out.

As he watched and listened, he glanced at Jenner now and again. She was trying to get comfortable in the chair, where she was presently cuffed, but it wasn't easy. Tough shit. He'd tried letting her go to bed unrestrained – at least until he turned in himself – thinking he could watch her and do his job, but damned if she hadn't been up and down, flitting around in the bathroom, going to the parlor for a book that had obligated him to stop what he was doing and follow her. She'd read for maybe five minutes, then she'd been up again, rearranging the clothes in the closet and whatever the hell else she could do to take his attention from the job at hand. Finally he'd grabbed her, pushed her skinny little ass in the chair, and cuffed her to it. He couldn't afford to be distracted.

Not that she wasn't distracting enough already.

She'd looked good enough to eat – in both senses of the word – tonight, in a pink dress with sparkles all over it, held up by two tiny straps that he could have snapped with one finger. That's what he'd kept thinking about: how easy it would be to break them and peel the top down to bare those pert little breasts that kept tormenting him from under the skimpy tanks she wore as pajama tops.

Last night had been a mistake. Throwing her down and landing on top of her had been a miscalculation, a moment when sheer instinct had overridden cool intellect. His heart had almost stopped when her legs parted, and his erection had pressed hard against the soft heat of her groin. If she hadn't had her pajamas on, he'd have been inside her without thinking twice, and that was the worst part of it, that he wouldn't have thought twice, or even once.

Since then, he could barely drag his mind away from the subject. He'd realized from the beginning that she had the ability to get to him, on a purely physical level, like nothing he'd ever experienced before, but there was a big, deep trench between them that he couldn't let himself cross. The psychology of their situation meant that she had no power, so any intimacy between them smacked, at best, of coercion. She'd recognized it, too, or she wouldn't have said that about the Stockholm syndrome. He wasn't a rapist, full stop. There was no wiggle room on this.

But, God, he wanted her under him. He wanted to see her naked, he wanted her to kiss him the way she had the first night, when she'd been so hot and angry she'd almost set his shorts on fire. The intensity of the way he wanted her made him feel like a caveman, intent on nothing else except grabbing her ass and holding her still for that first heart-stopping stroke of his penis into the hot clasp of her body.

Wasn't going to happen. He couldn't – wouldn't – let himself do it.

On the laptop screen, Larkin turned on his cell phone and walked toward the balcony. Cael jerked his mind away from Jenner and focused on the task at hand. Watching Larkin, he leaned forward and tensed, said a little prayer. If Larkin went outside they'd be lucky to catch every other word. The wind, combined with the distance from the mike, would play hell with their reception. Fortunately, Larkin didn't go through the doors but stood there, punching buttons; then he lifted his head to stare into the darkness through the glass door.

What he wouldn't give to have a bug on that cell phone so he could hear both sides of the conversation, Cael thought. But they couldn't even capture the call by other means, because Larkin's phone was encrypted just like theirs were. He made a note of the time. Maybe his contacts would at least be able to get the number Larkin had dialed, if Faith couldn't pull it herself.

"I call you on my schedule, not yours," Larkin said coldly, into the phone. "I have the information you need to make the payment." He rattled off a long number from memory, probably a bank account and routing number.

After that, he was silent for a few moments. Who was on the other end of the line? Just a business associate, or the contact they'd been searching for?

"Hilo, as arranged," Larkin said carefully, as if he didn't trust the phone's encryption and being cautious about offering too many details. "Don't be hasty. All things in good time." He listened awhile longer, then ended the call without saying good-bye. Did that mean he considered himself superior to the person he'd been talking to, or had the other person disconnected first?

Larkin turned off the cell phone and set it aside. He removed his tie as he walked toward the bedroom, turning off lights as he went. As he walked into the bedroom, the camera and transmitter Cael had threaded into the room caught the action. The angle was from the floor, pointed up.

Thank God Larkin didn't sleep naked.

Cael watched as Larkin rubbed his temples, frowning deeply before swearing for no apparent reason. Was he sick? Stressed? Betraying your country should give a man a headache. To Cael's way of thinking, the fact that Larkin was a naturalized citizen made treason even more heinous, because he wasn't a citizen by accident of birth, he'd actively chosen to become one, he'd sworn an oath to the country.

Larkin went into the bathroom, where, thankfully, Cael couldn't see him, though the earbuds did pick up the sounds of teeth being brushed and the toilet being flushed. He came out of the bathroom and went into the closet, where he changed clothes and emerged wearing gray silk pajamas that shimmered in the lamplight. Then he got into bed and turned out the lamp, plunging the room into darkness.

When all had been silent for a few minutes, Cael removed the earbuds. Any sound would be recorded, in case something unexpected happened during the night, but so far once Larkin went to bed he stayed there until morning.

Cael turned toward Jenner. "You might as well get some sleep. I have some phone calls to make."

She gave him a look that should have drawn blood. "You think I can sleep in this chair?"

"I gave you a chance to sleep in the bed while I worked," he pointed out. "But, no, you had to jump around the room like a Chihuahua on speed. Up and down, here and there, you weren't still for two minutes. It's your own fault you're cuffed to the chair."

She jerked on the cuff. "So uncuff me now, and I'll go to bed."

She had to be both uncomfortable and tired, but he didn't feel guilty; this was his job, and he'd damn well do whatever needed to be done. That said, he understood why he might not be her favorite person on the planet, which was good. He didn't want her feeling friendly toward him.

On the other hand, he didn't want to completely alienate her, either. There wasn't much he could actually tell her, but he could offer her some reassurance. "Look, I'm doing my best to make this as easy for you as possible, but you keep getting in my face. Your friend is fine, she'll continue to be fine as long as things go okay, and when you get back to San Diego you'll" – he lifted his hand in a dismissive gesture – "go out to lunch, pick out some new diamonds, get your nails done – whatever it is you do to recover from a slightly upsetting experience."

"Slightly upsetting?" Her voice wasn't exactly a shriek, but it definitely came close.

"Yes, slightly." Now there was an edge to his tone. This job was a walk in the park, even for her. She hadn't been hurt, she had good food, she slept in a real bed at night. She didn't know what rough conditions really were.

She glared at him, with a strength in her gaze, a pure force of will, that he was always surprised to see in her eyes. They were nice eyes, hazel green, smart and sharp. He tried to imagine going through this experience with any of the many other women he'd met on this cruise, but it didn't work. An ordinary woman would probably be too scared to function, and would cry. A lot. Like most men, crying women drove him nuts. Jenner didn't cry. And when she got scared, she got mad. That might not be the most comfortable reaction for him to deal with, but he sure as hell didn't get bored.

Pain in the ass that she was, he'd take Jenner Redwine over any of the other possibilities, any day.

He left her there in the bedroom, handcuffed and pissed, and walked into the parlor. He dialed a number he knew by memory, and when his contact answered, Cael said, "Hilo."

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